Gazans living near the Egyptian border braced for fresh attacks late Wednesday after Israeli planes dropped leaflets warning them to evacuate as the military resumes its offensive following a three-hour halt.
The warnings came as the Israeli security cabinet resolved to push further into Gaza’s towns. A senior defence official told the AFP this included “a third stage” that would broaden the offensive “by pushing deeper into populated areas.”
It is now up to Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, to give the order to move into the next stage, according to Israeli military officials.
Reporting from Gaza, New York Times correspondent Taghreed al Khodary said the Israeli evacuation warnings had ratcheted up panic levels inside the Strip. “Rafah people cannot come all the way to Gaza City because the Gaza Strip is divided now,” she said.
Situated in southern Gaza, Rafah is crisscrossed by underground tunnels, which Israel says are used to smuggle arms from Egypt. Gaza City is in the northern half of the Gaza Strip.
Since its ground offensive began late Saturday, Israeli forces have split up the 41-kilometre coastal enclave that is home to about 1.5 million Palestinians. Since the start of the Israeli offensive on December 27, at least 700 Palestinians, including 220 children, have been killed, with a further 3,100 wounded, according to Palestinian medics.
After three-hour break, Israeli bombings resume
Wednesday’s warning followed a three-hour suspension of Israeli bombings following mounting international alarm over the humanitarian situation in Gaza. Hamas also agreed to the cessation of hostilities, according to a Hamas spokesman in Damascus.
While the ceasefire was generally observed, FRANCE 24’s Radjaa Abou Dagga, reporting from Gaza City said there were pinpointed Israeli attacks on the outskirts of the city.
Abou Dagga, who is one of the few journalists inside Gaza since Israel banned journalists from entering the besieged enclave, said he witnessed an Israeli helicopter strike north of Gaza City during the three-hour break. “I saw a helicopter which continued to bomb an area situated north of Gaza City,” he said. He added that witnesses reported similar bombing to the south and to the east of the city during the ceasefire period.
The bombings resumed Wednesday just minutes after the truce ended, said FRANCE 24’s Lucas Menget, reporting from the Gaza border. “What I can see from the northern side of the Gaza Strip is that after three hours of ceasefire, a few artillery shells started to fall again on the Gaza Strip.”
Just hours after the end of the ceasefire, Palestinian medical sources said a man and his three children were killed in an Israeli airstrike in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip.
A Hamas rocket also landed in the southern Israeli town of Beer-Sheva shortly after the three-hour halt. There were no casualties in the attack.
Agencies use three-hour window to bring in aid
Wednesday’s ceasefire followed intense international outcry over the humanitarian situation in the impoverished, densely populated enclave after 12 days of Israeli attacks.
Speaking to FRANCE 24 from Jerusalem, Francesc Claret, a spokesman for UNRWA, the UN agency working with Palestinian refugees, said the organization had succeeded in bringing in aid during the three-hour break.
“We got in 35 trucks of food and medicine and five trucks of fuel,” said Claret. But, while he welcomed the temporary ceasefire, Claret added that it was “completely insufficient”.
“In a few hours, we cannot deliver all the aid we need to and we cannot assure that people can get to our distribution centers in safety. So we keep on calling for an immediate and total ceasefire,” he said.
Israeli cabinet considers Egyptian truce proposal
After 12 days of a sustained Israeli offensive in Gaza, international pressure for a ceasefire has been gathering steam following Tuesday night’s ceasefire call by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
The announcement, along with an invitation to host an Israeli delegation to discuss an immediate ceasefire, followed a frantic diplomatic shuffle in the region by French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened a security cabinet meeting Wednesday to weigh expanding the army's offensive in the Gaza Strip and to discuss the Egyptian ceasefire initiative.
The meeting comes as the US government, which has staunchly supported Israel’s right to defend itself, has also signaled its support for the Egyptian proposal.
Israel says its military operation in Gaza is designed to stop Hamas rockets being fired into Israeli territory.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke early Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as well as Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, according to US State Department officials.
Rice is also meeting with Arab ministers as well as her French and British counterparts at the United Nations in a bid to push for a ceasefire deal.
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