Israel pursues bombings, Hamas leader rejects truce

The violence in the Gaza Strip continues despite a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. Hamas's political leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, said his group will not consider a ceasefire until Israel pulls out.


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REUTERS - Israel sent tanks deeper into Gaza on Saturday and threatened to intensify its air and ground assault, ignoring international calls to stop the conflict with Hamas militants who fired more rockets into the Jewish state.

Hamas's leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, said his group would not consider a Gaza ceasefire until Israel ends its 15-day-old military offensive and opens the coastal enclave's border crossings.

"Let Israel pull out first, let the aggression stop first, let the crossings open and then people can look into the issue of calm," said Meshaal, in a televised speech in Damascus.

Israeli forces killed at least 26 people, including eight members of one family in the northern Gaza Strip, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said, bringing the Palestinian death toll from the fighting to 843.

Thirteen Israelis have been killed since the offensive began on Dec. 27, three civilians hit by rocket fire and 10 soldiers.

In Egypt, efforts by President Hosni Mubarak to broker a ceasefire showed little sign of progress and Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets on southern Gaza telling residents it was about to step up its offensive.

While Israeli commanders asserted that whole Hamas battalions were being wiped out, the group's leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, said Israeli soldiers in the enclave had achieved nothing, pointing to the continued rocket fire.

Israel said an air strike near the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip killed Amir Mansi, a senior Hamas commander. Palestinian medical workers said one adult and two children were killed but Mansi's condition was unclear.

Israel denied firing the shell that killed eight members of the Abu Rayya family in Jabalya earlier in the day.

The fighting continued even during a three-hour ceasefire window Israel has observed in recent days to allow humanitarian aid to help sustain the territory's 1.5 million residents.

Israeli actions have drawn denunciations from the Red Cross, U.N. agencies and Arab and European governments, spurred by a Palestinian civilian death toll in the hundreds.

Human Rights Watch on Saturday accused Israel of using white-phosphorus munitions in Gaza and warned of the risk to Palestinian civilians.

The group said Israel appeared to be using the munitions to make smoke screens to hide military operations -- "a permissible use in principle under international humanitarian law". But it said the practice should be stopped in densely-populated areas.

The Israeli military said it only employs weapons permitted under international law. Human rights organisations have long urged a world ban on white-phosphorus shells, saying they cause undue suffering through severe burns.


As Israeli tanks advanced in northern Gaza and aircraft hit targets across the coastal strip, Hamas rockets hit Ashkelon, 20 km (12 miles) north of Gaza, wounding three Israelis.

"In the coming period, the Israeli army will continue to attack tunnels, weapons caches, and terrorists with escalating force all over the Gaza Strip," Israeli army leaflets told residents of the Rafah refugee camp near the Egyptian border.

The United Nations, worried about the deepening humanitarian impact of the war, with more than half Gaza's population dependent on U.N. food assistance, said it hoped to resume full aid distribution after receiving Israeli assurances that its staff would not be harmed. A U.N. driver was killed on Thursday.

Israel has pressed on with its offensive despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and Egyptian-European efforts at mediation, saying it is intent on stopping Hamas rocket fire.

The group fired about a dozen rockets at Israel on Saturday, while a phalanx of Israeli tanks advanced from the north towards the city of Gaza.


In an attempt to breathe life into a faltering Egyptian-led mediation effort, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party is a political foe of Hamas, met Mubarak in Cairo.

Afterwards, Egypt said it would not accept foreign troops on its side of the 14.5-km (9-mile) border with Gaza to prevent arms smuggling. Abbas said any forces should be in Gaza itself, not along the border.

Germany, whose foreign minister also met Egyptian officials, said it would send experts to help assess Egypt's police training needs to bolster anti-smuggling efforts, but Israeli officials remained sceptical.

Privately, diplomats believe the Egyptian initiative, also sponsored by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is in trouble.

Hamas has sent representatives to Egypt, and Israeli defence official Amos Gilad planned to return there for more talks as early as Sunday.

"There is a growing sense that the Egyptian-French plan is not going to work," a senior European diplomat told Reuters.

Israel is demanding a complete halt to Hamas rocket fire, plus regional and international guarantees to stop the group rearming via smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt.
Israel has long complained the Egyptians were not doing enough to prevent Hamas building up an arsenal of Soviet-designed missiles.

Hamas wants any ceasefire deal to include the ending of Israel's crippling economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the territory, from which Israel withdrew in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.


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