Israel prepares for ground offensive, Hamas issues threats

Hamas leader-in-exile Khaled Mechaal warned of a “black destiny” awaiting Israel if they invade Gaza. The Islamist movement, which claims it repelled an Israeli ground incursion, lost one of its military chiefs during an overnight airstrike.


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FRANCE 24 with wires - The armed wing of Hamas said on Saturday its fighters had repelled a patrol of Israeli special forces troops trying to cross the border into the Gaza Strip, AFP reported.


A spokesman for the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades told AFP that fighters spotted an unspecified number of special forces trying to enter the Shijaiyah border neighbourhood of eastern Gaza City at around 1 am (2300 GMT Friday).


He said the fighters fired six mortar rounds at the Israelis, who returned fire with small arms and retreated. He said there were no casualties.


A spokesman told AFP the Israeli army was "not familiar with the incident," adding that no soldiers had crossed into Gaza since the beginning of Israel's air campaign against Hamas on December 27.


An Israeli air strike killed a senior commander of Hamas's armed wing on Saturday while the Islamist group's leader warned the Israeli army, currently massing on the border, would be defeated if it invaded Gaza.


A week after Israel launched devastating air strikes against the Palestinian enclave with the declared aim of ending Hamas rocket attacks on its southern towns, an end to hostilities remains elusive despite international diplomatic efforts.


Hamas warns against ground attack


The overnight air strike in Gaza killed Abu Zakaria al-Jamal, a senior leader of Hamas's armed wing, the Islamist group said according to Reuters. The Israeli army said only that it carried out a series of air attacks throughout the night.



On Thursday, an Israeli air strike killed another Hamas leader, Nizar Rayyan. Most of Hamas's top officials have gone into hiding, anticipating assassination attempts by Israel.



The United States has said it envisions a ceasefire with international monitoring that would ensure the Islamist group could not rearm, but in Damascus, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal sounded a defiant note in a televised speech.



"We are ready for the challenge, this battle was imposed on us and we are confident we will achieve victory because we have made our preparations," Meshaal said.



A Palestinian official has told Reuters that Egypt had begun exploratory talks with Hamas to stop the fighting.



Gaza medical officials put the Palestinian casualty toll at at least 429 dead and 2,000 wounded and a United Nations agency said more than a quarter of those killed were civilians. A leading Palestinian human rights group put the figure at 40 percent.



Four Israelis have been killed by Palestinian rockets, which include longer-range weapons that have hit the port of Ashdod and the desert town of Beersheba, forcing schools to shut and residents to scurry for shelter.



U.S. President George W. Bush, in his first public comments on the hostilities that erupted less than a month before he leaves office, said: "Another one-way ceasefire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable."



"And promises from Hamas will not suffice -- there must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end," he said in remarks prepared for his weekly Saturday radio address, which was released on Friday.



The United States has demanded that Hamas, which Israel says has been smuggling weapons through tunnels under Gaza's border with Egypt, take the first step by halting rocket attacks on Israel.



In the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, 1.5 million Palestinians are unable to escape the conflict. Residents face bombs, missiles and flickering electricity, and queue for bread along streets littered with broken glass and other debris.



Ten Palestinians were killed on Friday in more than 30 Israeli air strikes. Seven of them were civilians, including five children, local medics said.



One missile killed three Palestinian children aged between eight and 12 as they played on a street near the town of Khan Yunis in the south of the strip. One was decapitated.



Islamist fighters fired rockets at Israel's ancient port of Ashkelon, blowing out windows in an apartment building. Another house took a direct hit from a long-range missile later in the day, and cars were set ablaze.




Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have been engaged in telephone diplomacy during the past week, talking with leaders in the Middle East and Europe, including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.



Earlier on Friday the White House said Israel must decide for itself whether to go into the Gaza Strip with ground forces but it cautioned any actions should avoid civilian casualties and ensure the flow of humanitarian goods.



Hamas is believed to have 25,000 fighters. Its men have been maintaining a vigil along the Israeli frontier, observing army movements on the other side and broadcasting messages in Hebrew over field radios telling their enemy they are not afraid.

Read our "Observers"" account on Israel's high-tech weaponry.

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