Fierce battles in the streets of Gaza City
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Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters clashed in the streets of Gaza City early Tuesday as Israeli special forces backed by tanks and air strikes pushed deeper into Gaza's main city on the 18th day of an offensive against Hamas.
Israeli troops clashed with Hamas fighters in fierce street battles early Tuesday in Israel’s deepest incursion yet into the Gaza Strip as international envoys pursued efforts to secure a ceasefire.
Israeli forces backed by tanks and air support advanced several hundred metres into densely populated neighbourhoods in southern parts of Gaza City, witnesses told the AFP news agency.
Israeli forces were “not more than 800 metres from the centre of Gaza,” FRANCE 24 correspondent Zouheir Al Najjar said from the Gaza Strip’s main city.
Israeli military sources said that the more than 60 air strikes launched overnight targeted Hamas positions, including rocket-launching sites, weapons storage areas and tunnels along the border with Egypt that are suspected of being used to smuggle weapons into the territory.
Palestinian fighters responded to the latest Israeli advance using roadside bombs, mortars and gunfire. Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, told AFP its forces had destroyed two Israeli tanks in the outlying Gaza City neighbourhood of Zeitun using rocket-propelled grenades.
Israeli army sources denied that any tanks had been lost in the fighting.
The tanks retreated before dawn from the Tal al-Hawa and Sheikh Ajlin neighbourhoods but remained stationed in Zeitun, according to AFP.
“Planes, drones and tanks advanced inside Gaza, then retreated,” FRANCE 24 correspondent Radjaa Abou Dagga said. “This seems to have been the strategy for the past three days; the Israeli troops advance overnight, then retreat with the coming of day.”
At least one person was confirmed killed in the overnight fighting but the death toll is expected to rise, medical sources said.
Since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on Dec. 27, at least 917 people have been killed and 4,100 wounded, according to Gaza-based medical sources.
Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed since the start of the operation.
‘Hamas is very divided’
The United Nations’ Security Council was to hold closed-door consultations on the crisis at 4pm GMT+1 Tuesday.
Meanwhile, Egyptian leaders have been holding talks in Cairo with Hamas, Israeli and international envoys to broker an agreement based on a Franco-Egyptian plan for a limited initial ceasefire that could pave the way for a permanent peace accord. The proposal also calls for an end to the smuggling of weapons into Gaza and the opening of border crossings into the territory.
The international efforts to secure a ceasefire agreement come amid deep political divisions on both sides of the conflict.
Hamas’s prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said in a speech delivered Monday that while Hamas fighters were “approaching victory,” the Islamist movement would be ready to “examine in a positive manner any initiative which can put an end to this aggression and the blood of our children being shed.”
Haniyeh’s remarks stand in stark contrast to recent statements from Khaled Meshaal, who leads Hamas’s political wing from Syria.
Marshal has “made it very clear that, as far as he was concerned, there was no way that there would be a ceasefire,” says FRANCE 24’s Annette Young in Jerusalem.
“Hamas is very divided,” says Jean-Bernard Cadier, a specialist in international relations at FRANCE 24. Meshaal’s Damascus wing wants to fight to the end, while Haniyeh in Gaza is open to a possible truce.
At this stage of the conflict, Haniyeh may even be “seeking an invitation to the talks in Cairo,” Cadier says, noting that Haniyeh’s recent demands – for a halt to violence, a lifting of the Israeli blockade, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the reopening of border crossings – are all key elements of the Egyptian peace plan.
Israeli camp equally split
But political rifts are widening on the Israeli side as well. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has made clear that he is ready to intensify military operations in Gaza until Hamas ceases firing rockets into Israel and an accord is reached to prevent Hamas from rearming.
“If these two conditions are met, we will end our operation in Gaza,” Olmert said. “Anything else will meet the iron fist of the Israeli people.”
For their part, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defence Minister Ehud Barak are reportedly looking to end Israel’s offensive as soon as possible.
Young says Livni “supports the idea of a quick withdrawal, but on the threat of re-entering Gaza if that rocket fire does not [cease].”
Given the competing views still at work within the Israeli Cabinet, the next stage of the conflict remains uncertain.
“There is still a degree of speculation as to whether we are going to see a final further push into Gaza or not,” says Young.
Israeli leaders have reportedly already delayed ordering the start of a “Phase 3” to the offensive, which would include widespread urban warfare and could incur heavy Israeli casualties less than a month before Israel’s parliamentary elections.
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