Following Israeli raids on the Gaza Strip which caused more than 60 Palestinian deaths, Mahmud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, called for a suspension of peace talks with Israel.
GAZA, March 1 (Reuters) - Israel killed 52 Palestinians on
Saturday in its deadliest and deepest incursion into the Gaza
Strip since pulling out in 2005, stoking fears of a broader
conflict that could derail renewed U.S.-backed peace talks.
At least 29 of the dead were civilians, among them women and
children, said Palestinian doctors who were working round the
clock. In all, 87 Palestinians have been killed in four days of
air strikes and, now, heavy fighting on the ground in the north.
Two Israeli soldiers were also killed and seven wounded, the
army said -- its first deaths in Gaza since October. Dozens of
Hamas rockets hit Israeli border areas, wounding several people.
As Israeli leaders warned they could step up the assault, a
top U.N. official in Gaza appealed for international action to
end the "inhuman suffering" of the people of the enclave.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a sworn enemy of Gaza's
Islamist rulers, called United Nations Secretary General Ban
Ki-moon and asked for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security
Council to help end the "massacres" in Gaza, an Abbas aide said.
Employing a striking phrase used on Friday by a top Israeli
official, Abbas said Gazans faced "more than a holocaust".
Israel's deputy defence minister Matan Vilnai, who warned
on Friday that Gaza faced a "shoah", said: "As long as events
escalate, the chances we will use greater force increases."
With U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice due to visit
next week to promote stuttering peace negotiations between Abbas
and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Palestinian negotiator
Saeb Erekat warned: "If the Israeli escalation and aggression
continue, it will bury the peace process in the rubble."
A spokesman for Israel's chief negotiator said: "What Israel
is doing in Gaza is fighting terror and it will be continued."
Israel said it was responding to cross-border rockets, which
killed an Israeli man in the border town of Sderot on Wednesday
and have wounded others in the major southern city of Ashkelon.
More than 48 rockets and mortars landed on Saturday.
"I DON'T WANT TO DIE"
Palestinian officials said their one-day death toll in Gaza
on Saturday was the highest since 2002. Of the 52 killed, 23
were fighters, according to hospital staff and Hamas, which
seized Gaza in June after routing Abbas's Western-backed forces.
"Uncle, I don't want to die. I want my dad," a toddler
screamed as doctors tried to treat burn wounds across her body
in Gaza's main Shifa hospital. The girl was injured in a house
which the Israeli army said was used to store and make weapons.
One of the dead civilians was a mother who was preparing
breakfast for her children when she was hit by gunfire,
relatives and medical workers said. One missile slammed into a
crowd of Palestinians, killing four civilians, medics said.
In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said: "I say
to the Zionist leaders, if they decided to raid Gaza, they will
be fought not by dozens ... but ... by 1.5 million people."
A senior U.N. official in Gaza, John Ging, appealed to world
leaders to interrupt their weekend to stop the fighting:
"Killing Palestinian women and children will not bring
security to the people of Israel," he said, cautioning Israeli
commanders about the risk of committing war crimes. He also said
Hamas's rocket fire would not achieve Palestinians' goals.
Palestinian officials said Israeli forces advanced towards
the towns of Beit Hanoun and Jabalya, the largest and furthest
incursion into Gaza since 2005, when Israel pulled out its
settlers and troops from the territory after 38 years.
Daily rocket fire for months has put Olmert under pressure
from voters to act. But the government, chastened by a costly
war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in 2006, is wary of
an outright invasion of the densely populated coastal region.
Olmert's deputy, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, said: "We need to
act with all our might, but without taking steps that will hurt
us more than help us -- by which I mean reoccupying Gaza."
He said the main targets would be those directly involved in
firing rockets and the broader Islamist leadership in Gaza.
Washington has urged Israel to "consider the consequences".
Bloodshed could derail U.S. hopes of a deal on a Palestinian
state this year before President George W. Bush steps down.
Abbas's power is now restricted to the Israeli-occupied West
Bank. While he would shed few tears if Israel destroyed Hamas,
he risks losing already patchy support in the West Bank if he is
not seen to be speaking out against the Israeli military action.
Reflecting the depth of factional rifts among Palestinians,
Abbas rejected a charge by Meshaal that he was giving cover to
Israel. And he declared Sunday a day of national mourning.
Date created : 2008-03-02