GAZA

Israel resumes Gaza offensive, Hamas envoys head for Cairo

The violence in the Gaza Strip continues despite a UN resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire. Eight Palestinians died from injuries caused by an Israeli tank shell in the north of the Gaza Strip Saturday.

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REUTERS - Israel pounded the Gaza Strip for a 15th straight day on Saturday and militants from Hamas fired rockets back at Israel, both sides defying international efforts to put a stop to the conflict.

 

Eight Palestinians were killed by an Israeli tank shell in Jabalya in the north of the Gaza Strip, and an air strike on a house in nearby Beit Lahiya killed a woman, Palestinian medics said.

 

Hamas rockets hit the town of Ashkelon, about 20 km (12 miles) north of Gaza, wounding two Israelis.

 

Concerned about the deepening impact of the war on Gaza's 1.5 million people, more than half of whom depend on U.N. food assistance, the United Nations said it was hoping to resume full aid distribution on Saturday after receiving Israeli assurances that its staff would not be harmed.

 

Despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and Egyptian-European mediation efforts, Israel appeared set on pressing on with its offensive, designed to stop Hamas rocket fire. In response, Hamas fired more rockets.

 

"Israel is determined to deal with this matter until its positive conclusion, so that there is no terrorism in Gaza against Israel," Rafi Eitan, a member of Israel's security cabinet, told Israel Radio.

 

Continuing a policy of recent days, however, Israel was due to cease operations between 1100 and 1400 GMT on Saturday to allow humanitarian aid to be distributed throughout Gaza.

 

At least two tank shells hit northern Gaza immediately after the truce window opened, residents said. Off the coast, Israeli ships trawled the water, machineguns trained on northern Gaza.

 

Medical officials in the Gaza Strip said the Palestinian death toll had risen to 795, of whom more than a third were children, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry.

 

Thirteen Israelis have been killed: 10 soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rocket fire.

 

The bombing of tunnels along the southern Gaza border with Egypt, used to smuggle arms and other goods into Gaza, knocked out electricity in the town of Rafah, residents said.

 

Hamas fired around a dozen rockets into Israel on Saturday.

 

 

CEASEFIRE EFFORTS

 

 

 

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

 

They discussed the possible deployment of international forces along the Gaza-Egypt border under any ceasefire deal, but Abbas said they should be in Gaza itself, not along the border.

 

Privately, diplomats believe the Egyptian initiative, also sponsored by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, is in trouble, even if Israel has said talks over the proposal will continue and Hamas has sent representatives to Cairo.

 

"There is a growing sense that the Egyptian-French plan is not going to work," a senior European diplomat told Reuters. European and Israeli diplomats said Egypt was objecting to proposals that foreign troops and technicians be stationed on its 15-km (9-mile) border with Gaza to prevent arms smuggling.

 

Instead, diplomats said, Egypt was ready to accept technical assistance for its own forces on the border. Israel says the Egyptians have failed in the past to prevent Hamas building up an arsenal of hundreds of Soviet-designed Katyusha missiles.

 

Likewise, the U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an "immediate and durable" ceasefire appears to have found no traction with either Israel or Hamas.

 

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert dismissed it as "unworkable" and Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip said they objected to it because they had not been consulted.

 

 

WHITE HOUSE BLAMES HAMAS

 

 

 

The United States, which abstained in the U.N. vote, offered further public support for Israel's military goals.

 

"This situation will not improve until Hamas stops lobbing rockets into Israel," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.

 

He said President George W. Bush had expressed concern to Olmert about the humanitarian situation and the loss of civilian lives during the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.

 

With the Palestinian civilian death toll already in the hundreds, Israeli actions have drawn denunciations from the Red Cross, U.N. agencies and Arab and European governments. U.N. sources said Israel was also stepping up operations in the West Bank, detaining Palestinian suspects in rising numbers.

 

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.

 

Israel's key demands are for a complete halt to Hamas rocket fire and for international guarantees to stop the group rearming via smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt.

 

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