Israeli troops advanced into Gaza suburbs for the first time early today, residents said, hours after Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned Islamic militants that they face an “iron fist” unless they agree to Israeli terms for an end to war in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas showed no signs of wavering, however, with its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, saying the militants were “closer to victory”.
Sounds of the battle could be heard clearly around the city of 400,0000 as the Israeli forces, backed by artillery and attack helicopters, moved into neighbourhoods east and south of Gaza City, as Israeli gunboats shelled the coast from the west.
Residents said Israeli tanks rolled into public areas of the Tel Hawwa neighbourhood, pushing back militants. Tens of thousands of Palestinians live in apartment buildings in the neighbourhood south of Gaza City.
One of the residents, Khader Mussa, 35, said that he saw two apartment buildings on fire.
He said he was huddling in the basement of his building with 25 other people, including his pregnant wife and his parents. “The gates of hell have opened,” he said. “God help us.”
Several other buildings were on fire, witnesses said, including a lumberyard. Thick smoke blanketed the area.
The Israeli military confirmed that a battle was in progress but gave no details.
Dr Moaiya Hassanain, a Palestinian Health Ministry official, said dozens of calls for ambulances had been received, but they cold not be dispatched because of the fighting.
Despite the tough words and clashes, Egypt said it was making slow progress in brokering a truce, and special Mideast envoy Tony Blair said elements were in place for a ceasefire.
As Mr Olmert spoke in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, Israeli tanks, gunboats and warplanes hammered suspected hiding places of Hamas operatives who control the poor, densely populated territory just across the border. The Israeli military said Hamas fired about 20 rockets at Israel yesterday, fewer than previous days.
Gaza’s Hamas prime minister insisted on an Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the opening of blockaded border crossings as part of any truce.
“As we are in the middle of this crisis, we tell our people we, God willing, are closer to victory. All the blood that is being shed will not go to waste,” Mr Haniyeh said on Hamas Al Aqsa television.
But he said the group was also pursuing a diplomatic track to end the conflict that “will not close”.
Mr Haniyeh sat a desk in a room with a Palestinian flag and a Koran in the background. His location was unclear; Israeli airstrikes have targeted militant chiefs, and most are in hiding.
The fighting began on December 27 and has killed more than 900 Palestinians, about half of them civilians, according to Palestinian medical officials. Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers, have been killed.
As diplomats struggled for traction in truce efforts, Mr Olmert said Israel would end military operations only if Hamas stops rocketing Israel, as it has done for years, and is unable to rearm after combat subsides.
“Anything else will be met with the Israeli people’s iron fist,” Mr Olmert said. “We will continue to strike with full strength, with full force until there is quiet and rearmament stops.”