Israeli ground forces made their deepest foray yet into Gaza’s most populated area, with tanks rolling into residential neighbourhoods and infantry fighting urban warfare in streets and buildings with Hamas militants.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said neighbourhoods in Gaza were filled with home-made bombs and booby traps, including shop dummies placed at apartment entrances to simulate militants and rigged to explode if soldiers approached.
The army “is advancing more into urban areas” said the spokeswoman, Maj Avital Leibovich. “Since the majority of the Hamas militants are pretty much in hiding in those places, mainly urban places, then we operate in those areas.”
Last night dense plumes of smoke from explosions rose over Gaza City and heavy gunfire was heard just south of the city. Early today, Israeli navy gunboats fired more than 25 shells at Gaza City, setting fires and shaking office buildings.
The military said that in general, the targets were Hamas installations but had no immediate information about the shelling that began just after midnight.
Before daybreak, at least one militant was killed in an Israeli airstrike in northern Gaza, where a battle was in progress, hospital officials said.
Gaza medics say at least 870 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, have been killed in the conflict that began on December 27 with Israeli air strikes on Hamas buildings, as well as suspected rocket launch sites and smuggling tunnels on the Egyptian border. Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers, have died.
German and British envoys pressed efforts to negotiate an end to the war even though Israel and Hamas had ignored a United Nations Security Council resolution calling for an immediate and durable ceasefire.
Outgoing prime minister Ehud Olmert said Israel had made progress in its objectives in the Gaza offensive but was not finished.
“Israel is nearing the goals that it set for itself,” Mr Olmert said. “However, further patience, determination and effort are necessary in order to achieve those goals in a way that will change the security reality in the south.”
While Mr Olmert’s comment signalled no immediate end to the offensive, it indicated that Israel is wary of an open-ended conflict with an unclear agenda.
Israel wants to end years of rocket attacks by Hamas on its southern population, a complex goal that could require Egyptian or international help in shutting off routes to smuggle weapons into Gaza from Egypt. Israel has been bombing tunnels that run under the Egypt-Gaza border.
In an email message early today, Hamas leader Ismail Radwan said his group would not consider a ceasefire before Israel stopped its attacks and pulled back from Gaza. He also demanded opening of all border crossings, emphasising the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
That would relieve economic pressure on the destitute territory but also strengthen Hamas control of Gaza, an odious prospect for Israelis who fear a halt to the fighting will just give Hamas another opportunity to rearm.
In Cairo, Egypt’s state-owned news agency reported progress in truce talks with Hamas but provided no specifics.
The Middle East News Agency quoted an unnamed Egyptian official as saying talks between the nation’s intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, and Hamas envoys were “positive”.
Palestinian medical officials reported about 60 deaths yesterday, including 17 who died of wounds suffered on previous days. Most of those killed were non-combatants, the officials said, including four members of one family killed when a tank shell hit their home near Gaza City, and a 10-year-old girl killed in a similar attack.
Military analysts say Israeli troops are probing territory, clearing buildings and moving around regularly, rather than digging into positions that would allow Hamas militants to get a fix on their whereabouts and lay ambushes.
Meanwhile international aid groups said Israel must do more to ensure the safety of civilians, in many cases unable to flee to safe places in Gaza, and essentially trapped because the territory’s exits are closed.
Israel has warned Gaza residents of a wider offensive. Yesterday it dropped leaflets urging Gaza residents to report the whereabouts of Hamas fighters, providing a phone number.
Middle East envoy Tony Blair and Germany’s top diplomat visited Jerusalem yesterday and Israel planned to send a senior defence official to Egypt this week.
Mr Blair met Mr Olmert and said a plan to end the fighting must include a halt to weapons smuggling and the opening of border crossings into Gaza. He said urgency was vital because “every day this action continues there are more people that die”.