Israeli forces pounded Gaza from air, land and sea today as a stream of diplomats headed for the region hoping to end the violence.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said the offensive would continue until Israel achieved its objective, “peace and tranquility” for residents of southern Israel who continued to be bombarded by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.
World outrage over ballooning Palestinian casualties mounted with at least seven children among the 13 civilians reported killed today.
The overall toll stood at 524 dead and nearly 2,000 wounded since Israel embarked upon its military campaign against Gaza’s Islamic Hamas rulers a week last Saturday.
Israeli forces seized sparsely populated areas in northern Gaza yesterday and by today were dug in on the edges of Gaza City. Further movement into the heart of the built-up areas would mean deadly urban warfare, house-to-house fighting, sniper fire and booby traps, in crowded streets and alleyways familiar to Hamas’ 20,000 fighters.
Four brothers and sisters were killed in a missile strike on a house east of Gaza City today. Three other children died in a naval shelling of a Gaza City beach camp, and three adult civilians died when a missile struck near a house of mourning in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, he said. Three other adult civilians died in attacks elsewhere.
Israeli troops took over three six-floor buildings on the outskirts of Gaza City, taking up rooftop positions after locking residents in rooms and taking away their mobile phones.
Civilian casualties have increased since Israel launched a ground offensive on Saturday, following a week of punishing air strikes. Of about 80 Palestinians killed during the ground operation, at least 70 were civilians.
The streets of Gaza City, home to 400,000 people, were almost empty.
Israel has three main demands: an end to Palestinian attacks, international supervision of any truce and a halt to Hamas rearming.
“If we withdraw today, without reaching some kind of comprehensive agreement, we haven’t done anything,” Israeli Cabinet Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer said. “The military has to carry on with its work.”
Hamas demands a stop to Israeli attacks and the opening of vital Gaza-Israel cargo crossings, Gaza’s main lifeline.
Militants, defying the attacks, fired more than a dozen rockets at Israel today. No injuries were reported, but the rockets continued to land deep inside Israel, some 20 miles from the Gaza border.
One reason Israel launched the Gaza campaign was because militants have acquired weapons able to reach closer to Israel’s Tel Aviv heartland.
Israel’s ground operation is the second phase in an offensive that began as a week-long aerial onslaught aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire that now threatens major cities and one-eighth of Israel’s population of 7 million people.
The spiralling civilian casualties have fuelled an intensifying international outcry.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who unsuccessfully proposed a two-day truce before the land invasion began, was due to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who lost control of Gaza to Hamas in June 2007.
While blaming Hamas for causing Palestinian suffering with rocket fire that led to the Israeli offensive, Mr Sarkozy has condemned Israel’s use of ground troops, reflecting general world opinion. He and other diplomats heading to the region are expected to press hard for a cease-fire.
A European Union delegation including foreign policy chief Javier Solana was due to meet Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
The Czech Republic, which took over the 27-nation EU’s presidency on Thursday, urged Israel to allow humanitarian relief aid into Gaza. German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on the phone yesterday with Mr Olmert and advocated a quick cease-fire in Gaza.