REUTERS - Israel threw reservists into battle in the Gaza Strip on Sunday and at least 31 Palestinians were killed on the 16th day of a devastating offensive Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said was close to achieving its aims.
The reservists had been held back until now, as Israeli leaders ponder a full-scale assault on Gaza's towns and cities to try to destroy Hamas's ability to fire rockets into Israel.
"We have begun to integrate reservist forces into the action in the Gaza Strip," military spokesman Avi Benayahu said on Israel's Channel 2 TV. "We aren't acting in panic, but cautiously."
His phrasing left it unclear whether Israeli forces had been ordered to storm into built-up areas, risking higher military casualties as well as heavy civilian losses.
Olmert, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met to discuss their next move, Israel radio said, predicting more attacks on smugggling tunnels used by Hamas on the Gaza-Egyptian border, and possibly a wider operation.
Thick black smoke rose over the city of Gaza as fighting raged on in the Hamas-ruled territory in defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand for a ceasefire. Medical workers said about half the Palestinians killed on Sunday were civilians.
"Israel is getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself," Olmert told his cabinet in Jerusalem.
"But patience, determination and effort are still needed to realise these goals in a manner that will change the security situation in the south," Olmert said, referring to Israeli towns where life has been disrupted by Hamas rocket salvoes.
On the usually quiet Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, shots were fired from Syria at Israeli army engineers working on the frontier fence, but no one was hurt and it was not immediately clear who was responsible, an Israeli military spokesman said.
Backed by helicopter gunships, Israeli tanks pushed into eastern and southern parts of the city of Gaza, attacking Hamas militants who fired anti-armour missiles and mortar bombs.
At the edge of the city, Mahmoud Abu Hasseera surveyed the rubble of his house, in an area where Israeli tanks and infantry had battled Palestinian fighters hours earlier.
"Where should we and our children go to sleep? To the streets?" he asked. "We have no mattresses, blankets, cooking gas, food or water. Everything was destroyed."
Rising death toll
The Palestinian death toll since Israel's offensive began on Dec. 27 stands at 890, many of them civilians, Gaza medical officials said. About 3,600 Palestinians have been wounded.
Thirteen Israelis -- three civilians hit by rocket fire and 10 soldiers -- have been killed, Israel says.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said his ruling Islamist group would not consider a ceasefire until Israel ended its air, sea and ground assault and lifted its blockade of Gaza. A Hamas delegation held talks in Cairo on an Egyptian truce plan.
Israel, which has rejected as unworkable the U.N. ceasefire resolution adopted last week, wants a halt to rocket attacks and measures to prevent Hamas from rearming through tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border.
Western and Israeli officials said diplomats were discussing a broad internationally assisted monitoring system to help Egypt stop weapons smuggling and intercept rocket shipments.
Visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Livni his country was ready to help Egypt combat smuggling by land and sea, Israeli officials said. German diplomats said Berlin had offered training and equipment to the Egyptians.
Israel believes at least some of Hamas's rockets arrived in Egypt by ship and were then transported overland across the Sinai peninsula before being sent into Gaza through tunnels.
Israeli forces killed 17 civilians, including four members of one family, and 10 gunmen, in the latest fighting, medics said. Air strikes killed three fighters and a Hamas policeman.
"We are continuing to confront a mad reality of boobytrapped tunnels, boobytrapped schools," the Israeli army spokesman said.
Hamas fired 17 rockets into Israel, wounding two people in the town of Beersheba, 42 km (26 miles) from Gaza, police said.
Along Gaza's border with Egypt, Israeli aircraft pounded suspected tunnels. Witnesses said Israeli warplanes had been flying over Egyptian territory on their bombing runs. An Israeli military spokesman had no comment.
The spokesman said Israel had complained to a U.N. monitoring force about the shooting on the Golan Heights, and had been told by the force that the gunman had been arrested.
Israel captured the plateau in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it in a move not recognised internationally.
In Washington, U.S. President-elect Barack Obama said in broadcast remarks he would begin the search for Middle East peace immediately on becoming president and the Gaza conflict underscored his determination to become involved early.
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