Battles rage as Israeli troops push deeper into Gaza
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Thirty Israeli soldiers have been wounded, two seriously, while dozens of armed Hamas operatives have been injured since the start of the ground offensive in Gaza, Israel said. At least 12 Gazans have also reportedly been killed in Israeli shelling.
Tanks, foot soldiers, artillery, navy ships and helicopters: the Israeli military has thrown all its forces into the ground offensive it launched against the Gaza Strip Saturday evening.
As fighting continued on Sunday, the Israeli army said at least 30 Israeli soldiers were wounded and that it had caused an unknown number of casualties among Hamas fighters.
"A large cloud of black smoke hovers over the northern Gaza Strip," FRANCE 24 special correspondent Lucas Menget reported from the border between the territory and Israël. He added that the Israeli artillery pounded the region all night and resumed cannon fire at 7 am on Sunday.
Menget said he saw "tanks and helicopters firing air-to-ground missiles into the Gaza Strip" enter the Palestinian territory. He also heard "intermittent Palestinian retaliations, which sounded like mortar rounds".
Similar scenes were reproduced at various border crossings. According to FRANCE 24 correspondent in Gaza City, Radjaa Abou Dagga, Israeli forces are advancing on five routes spreading from the north to the south of the territory.
The heaviest fighting has been taking place in the north of the Gaza strip, from where many rockets were fired into Israel. FRANCE 24 correspondent Lucas Menget, who reported heavy shelling from the north of the border into Gaza City, said: "Israelis are also entering into the middle of the Gaza Strip, trying to cut it in two".
Witnesses told AFP Sunday morning that Israeli troops had reached the outskirts of Gaza City. "You can hear the sound of heavy fighting from the centre of the city", said Zohir Nadjar, a second FRANCE 24 correspondent in Gaza city.
According to FRANCE 24's Israel correspondent Annette Young, "military analysts on this side of the border have always said that Hamas will try to drag those forces in the middle of very built-up areas, where it would become a messy urban warfare scenario.”
A political risk for Israel
Such guerilla warfare is likely to cause heavy casualties among Israeli troops and Palestinian civilians – a major political risk for Israeli leaders as general elections are scheduled for Feb. 10 in the Jewish state.
The army, which was heavily criticized after its failed 2006 offensive against Hezbollah in Lebanon, has since then renewed its training methods and invested in new equipment to boost its preparedness.
Yet Deputy Israeli Defence Minister Matan Vilnai said Israel was ready for "long weeks of action". Added Young: "Tens of thousands of reservists have been called up and were heading to training camps in the early hours of this morning."
In a communiqué, the Israeli military said that 30 of its soldiers had been wounded, two of them seriously, since the beginning of the ground offensive. Military officials however denied claims by Hamas that the Islamist movement had killed Israeli soldiers and captured two of them.
Israeli sources also said that "dozens of armed Hamas operatives were hit". The Palestinian movement did not give any figures on casualties in its ranks. Correspondent Nadjar saw the bodies of three men wearing the Hamas uniform in a Gaza hospital and was told that six more had died.
Witnesses said that a shell fired by an Israeli tank killed 12 people, most of them civilians, north of Gaza. Shelling also hit Gaza City's main commercial areas, killing at least 5 civilians and wounding 40 others, according to medics.
The operation, which started with eight days of air raids, has killed at least 460 Palestinians. Ambulances have been unable to reach the victims of violence since the beginning of the ground offensive.
The Gazan population, which had already suffered hardship after months of embargo, have no guidance on what to do now. "Palestinians do not know whether they should leave their houses or not," said Nadjar. Witnesses told AFP that dozens of families were feeling the advance of Israeli troops.
The European Commission urged Israel to respect international law and allow access to people "suffering and dying" in Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip.
"One and a half million people are crammed into an area that is just over one percent the size of Belgium. They rely on supplies from outside for their survival and, with every day that passes, their situation becomes more desperate, EU Humanitarian Aid Commissioner Louis Michel said in a statement.
Mixed international reactions
The international community appeared divided in its reaction to the Israeli offensive. The UN Security Council met to examine a Libyan-sponsored proposal calling for an "immediate ceasefire", but the meeting concluded without reaching an agreement on a unified statement without reaching an agreement on an unified statement.
Instead, the United States called for a ceasefire "as soon as possible", without stating a deadline. "They consider that Israel is in a state of self-defence," said FRANCE 24's New York correspondent Philippe Bolopion. "According to the US, there is no point in the Security Council wasting its energy and prestige calling for ceasefires that will not be respected."
"There was no formal agreement among the members of the Security Council, but in my capacity as President of the Security Council, I have noted strong convergences among the members", said French ambassador to the UN Jean-Maurice Ripert.
"The Arab countries' silence is deafening, starting with Egypt. Israel did not dare hope for so much," said Marc de Chalvron, FRANCE 24's correspondent in Jerusalem. "The Israelis have hardly ever had so much scope for action."
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, representing major powers sponsoring Middle East peace talks, planned to begin shuttling on Sunday between Israeli leaders and Palestinian leaders – Hamas's rivals – in the occupied West Bank.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called on Sunday for an immediate ceasefire between the two sides.
A European Union diplomatic mission is due to arrive in the Middle East on Sunday. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is expected in the region on Monday, also plans to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas.
In the north of the West Bank, Israeli soldiers shot dead a Palestinian man who was demonstrating against the Gaza offensive, Palestinian medical sources said on Sunday.
Tens of thousands took to the streets in Paris and London, while other demonstrations took place in cities across the United States, Europe and Asia calling on Israel to halt strikes.
Meanwhile, in Tel Aviv, Israelis were demonstrating for and against the military action.
Read our "Observers" account on Israel's high-tech weaponry.
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