Abbas accuses Israel of trying to 'wipe out' Palestinians

Speaking in Ramallah on Tuesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dubbed the Israeli offensive in Gaza an "aggression against our people", adding that Palestinians "will never surrender".


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AFP - Israeli troops and Hamas fighters traded fierce gunfire on the streets of Gaza City on Tuesday as Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas accused the Jewish state of trying to "wipe out" his people.

Israeli special forces backed by tanks and air strikes barrelled their way ever deeper into Gaza's largest city, advancing several hundred metres (yards) into several neighbourhoods in the south, witnesses and correspondents said.

The thud of tanks shells and the rattle of gunfire kept terrified residents awake on Monday night, although many had fled the area. Witnesses said the fighting was the most intense of the 18-day-old conflict.

As Egypt pressed on with an initiative designed to bring about an immediate end to Israel's deadliest ever offensive in the impoverished Gaza Strip, Abbas said the Jewish state appeared intent on waging a war of extermination.

"This is the 18th day of the Israeli aggression against our people, which is become more ferocious each day as the number of victims rises," Abbas said.  "Israel is keeping up this aggression to wipe out our people over there."

Israel's military chief said Operation Cast Lead was making progress but warned that troops faced "complicated" conditions in Gaza City, home to more than half a million Palestinians where Israel has little combat experience.

"We have already achieved a lot against both Hamas's infrastructure and its military wing but we still have work to be done," the chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, told lawmakers.

In a late-night television address, Ismail Haniya, who heads the Hamas administration in Gaza, proclaimed Israel had failed to break the will of Gaza and that the Islamists were nearing victory.

The overall death toll from the conflict on the Palestinian side has risen to at least 940, including 280 Palestinian children. A further 4,350 people have been wounded, according to the Palestinian emergency services.

A Saudi jihadist who was fighting alongside Hamas was among the latest fatalities, according to Islamist websites.

Three Israeli soldiers were wounded by an explosion in the north of the coastal territory, one of whom was in a critical condition, an army spokesman said.

On the Israeli side, 10 soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or by rocket attacks since December 27 when the Jewish state began its offensive.

Israeli warplanes also pounded the strip with more than 60 air strikes overnight, targeting rocket launching sites, weapons storage facilities, Hamas outposts and smuggling tunnels on Gaza's border with Egypt, the army said.

In his address, Haniya, who is not considered to wield influence over the group's armed wing, said the Islamists were 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."

A Hamas delegation is currently in Cairo for talks on a Western-backed proposal drawn up by President Hosni Mubarak on how to end the fighting.

A senior official in Cairo indicated Egypt was getting increasingly frustrated at Hamas's response so far to its initiative.

"We're working seriously with Hamas, we need to end the vagueness and they need to say 'yes', now, to our plan," the Egyptian diplomat told AFP on condition of anonymity.

"Egypt hopes that the Israeli war machine can be stopped by the end of the week and the massacres can be ended," before US president-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20, he said.

US secretary of state designate Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, said the incoming Obama administration would make "every effort" to forge Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Senior Hamas leader Mussa Abu Marzuk acknowledged the movement had "substantial obsevations" on the initiative but said there was "still a chance" that the Islamists would accept the plan.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who was headed to the Middle East on Tuesday, also called on Israel and Hamas to immediately stop the fighting, saying "too many people have died."

The Security Council, meanwhile, was to hold closed-door consultations on the crisis.

Aid agencies have warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in the territory where the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid and that is already reeling from months of a punishing Israeli blockade.

Speaking on a tour of Gaza's main hospital, the president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said he had been saddened by what he had seen.

"I wanted to see this hospital and I can only say this is really very sad and it hurts a lot when you see what I've just seen," Jakob Kellenberger told reporters.

Although the stated aim of the offensive has been to put an end to rockets and mortars being fired into its territory from Gaza, Israeli opposition head Benjamin Netanyahu said the Hamas regime would ultimately have to be ousted.

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