Israeli ground troops battle Hamas fighters

Israel continued its ground offensive through Sunday morning. Dozens of Palestinians have been killed so far as Hamas insurgents exchange fire with the Israeli troops. Army officials say that the operation could take many days.


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AFP - Israeli troops pushed deeper into Gaza and clashed in fierce battles with Hamas fighters on Sunday as Israel raised the stakes in its deadly offensive on the Islamists' overcrowded stronghold.

Explosions shook the northern Gaza Strip and thick black smoke billowed skywards as fighting raged in the largest Israeli military operation since the 2006 war in Lebanon.

Infantry and tanks were operating in the former Jewish colony of Netzarim, just three kilometres (nearly two miles) south of Gaza City, the main population centre of the densely populated territory, witnesses said.

Heavy fighting was also reported north of Gaza City and outside the northern towns of Beit Lahiya, Beit Hanun and Jabaliya.

Five civilians had been killed since Israeli troops rolled into Gaza just after nightfall on Saturday, medics said.

Some 30 Israeli soldiers and "several" Hamas fighters were reported to have been wounded so far, the army and medics said.

The Israeli army denied Hamas claims that soldiers had been killed and Palestinian ambulances were unable to reach the scene of the fighting.

The ground invasion followed a week of intense air and naval bombardment unleashed on the Gaza Strip on December 27 in a bid to stop persistent rocket fire from the enclave that the Islamists have run for a year and a half.

"Operation Cast Lead" had killed at least 463 Palestinians, including 80 children, and wounded more than 2,300 others before the ground troops rolled in, according to Gaza medics.

Rocket fire from Gaza over the same period killed four Israelis.

Israel's offensive had sparked spiralling anger in the Muslim world and protests across the globe.

In New York, the United Nations Security Council failed to agree on a resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire.

After nearly four hours of closed-door consultations, members of the council emerged without reaching agreement.

Hamas slammed the indecision, with spokesman Fawzi Barhum saying in a statement that "what is happening in the Security Council is a farce that shows the level that America and the Zionist occupier dominates its decisions."

France led criticism of the ground invasion that Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas warned would have "grave consequences" for the region.

The United States, which had given its close ally Israel free rein to decide whether to launch a ground offensive, warned that any ceasefire must prevent a return to the "status quo" with Hamas.

"We are working toward a ceasefire that would not allow a reestablishment of the status quo ante, where Hamas can continue to launch rockets out of Gaza and to condemn the people of Gaza to a life of misery," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office said the army aimed to capture sites used to fire rockets from Gaza into Israel and vowed to strike a "hard blow" to the Islamist group pledged to the destruction of the Jewish state.

With the army warning of "many days" of combat, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said "it will not be easy or short but we are determined."

The army had "dealt an unprecedented heavy blow to Hamas," he declared.

"Our aim is to force Hamas to stop its hostile activities against Israel and Israelis from Gaza, and to bring about a significant change in the situation in southern part of Israel."

The Israeli cabinet was to meet later on Sunday to discuss the offensive.

Less than two months before a snap general election called for February 10, the Israeli leadership is enjoying widespread public support for its offensive on Hamas.

The Islamists remain defiant, vowing the Israeli army would pay a "high price" for entering Gaza.

"Your incursion into Gaza will not be a walk in the park and Gaza will become your cemetery," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan said.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was due in Israel on Monday for talks on a ceasefire with Olmert in Jerusalem and Abbas in Ramallah.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the ground invasion a "dangerous military escalation" that would undermine attempts to broker a truce.

"France condemns the Israeli ground offensive against Gaza just as it condemns the continuing firing of rockets," Kouchner said in a statement.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown spoke with Olmert, "pressing hard for an immediate ceasefire," a statement from Brown's office said.


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