Israeli strikes mar New Year spirits in Gaza

The New Year in Gaza began with air strikes as Israeli jets pounded Hamas targets for a sixth day. In New York, the UN Security Council failed to vote on a Libyan draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.


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FRANCE 24 - The New Year in Gaza got of to a sombre start with Israeli jets pounding targets in the besieged Palestinian enclave for the sixth straight day as senior EU officials prepared to launch a diplomatic shuffle to the Middle East to try to find a solution to the current crisis.


In Gaza, the West Bank and neighbouring Arab states, New Year celebrations were low-key as the death toll from the Israeli assault since Saturday mounted to 400 people, according to Palestinian medical officers. More than 2,000 have been wounded in the strikes.


“It’s hard to accept the rise in violence on the first day of the New Year,” said FRANCE 24’s Radjaa Abou Dagga reporting from Gaza. “Gazans hoped for calm on New Year’s eve but it was not the case, the situation is worse today.”


Israeli warplanes targeted symbols of Hamas authority in Gaza early on Thursday including the justice and education ministry buildings as well as the police headquarters and parliament buildings. A children’s hospital in Gaza City was damaged during an early morning airstrike.


High ranking Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan was killed in an Israeli strike, according to medics in Gaza. Rayyan had been advocating the renewal of suicide bombings against the Jewish state, Hamas said.


According to Zouheir al Naggar, a local journalist in Gaza, the target of the Israeli strike appeared to be a nearby house believed to be the home of a Hamas official. “The house had already evacuated and the children’s hospital got hit in the strikes,” said al-Naggar.



EU on a diplomatic mission



On Thursday, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, who took over the rotating European Union presidency from France, said he planned to organise a diplomatic mission on behalf of the 27-member bloc to the Middle East.


The mission will include EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg and his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner among others.



The announcement came as Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Tzipi Livini meets with French President Nicolas Sarkozy Thursday to brief him about the Israeli-Palestinian situation.


Livni's visit comes days before Sarkozy's visit to the region in a bid to "find a roadmap towards peace."


“The Israeli government is still very open to hearing about further intiatives from France or any other member of the diplomatic community” according to  FRANCE 24’s Annette Young in Jerusalem. “This is a clear sign that a diplomatic solution will play a crucial part of  Israel’s exit strategy.”



The European diplomatic effort follows the UN Security Council’s failure to pass draft resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza Wednesday. The debate ended without a vote after the British and US ambassadors to the UN described the draft resolution as partial. According to them, the draft, which strongly condemned the Israeli military action, failed to mention Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli territory, which prompted the Jewish state to launch the offensive.


"This resolution as currently circulated by Libya is not balanced and therefore, as currently drafted, it is not acceptable to the United States," US ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad told reporters.



The council is expected to convene a public debate early next week on the draft resolution. The meeting would also include representatives from Israel, Egypt, the Arab League and the Palestinian territories.



Determined to fight back


Hamas, who took control of Gaza in 2007, has vowed to fight "until the last breath" if Israel sent in ground troops.


"We in Hamas are ready for all scenarios and we will fight until the last breath," senior official Mushir al-Masri told AFP late on Wednesday.


Hamas militants have fired more than 250 rockets into Israeli territory, killing three civilians and one solider and wounding several dozen people.


Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas has threatened to abandon peace talks with Israel so as not to support its deadly "aggression" against Gaza.


On Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel was not interested in conducting a “long war” in Gaza. The statement comes a day after Olmert and his cabinet ruled out ceasefire proposals, saying conditions were not right for the moment.


The public mood in Israel appears to overwhelmingly support the Gaza offensive, according to a poll published in the Israeli daily, Haaretz on Thursday. While 71% percent of those surveyed supported continuing the air strikes, 21% backed launching a ground operation. Only 21% supported a ceasefire declaration.



Map of Israeli offensive in Gaza, Picture AFP



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