Fighting enters 19th day as toll nears 1000

Israeli troops clashed with Palestinian militants and dug deeper into the streets of Gaza City on Tuesday. The death toll approaches 1000 going into the 19th day of an offensive against Hamas.


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Israeli troops clashed with Hamas fighters in fierce street battles on Tuesday as Israeli forces pushed deeper into Gaza City.

Israeli forces backed by tanks and air support advanced several hundred metres into densely populated neighbourhoods in southern parts of the city.

"It is quiet and calm in Gaza, as is usually the case between 6:00 and 10 or 10:30 in the evening, then it starts again," FRANCE 24 correspondent Radjaa Abou Dagga said from the Gaza Strip’s main city. “But in the southern Gaza Strip, in the district of Houzaha, east of the city of Khan Yunis, violence continues between Palestinian fighters and Israeli troops, who held an entire village hostage,” Dagga reported.

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 military also reported that Palestinian militants fired at least 20 rockets and mortar bombs into southern Israel on Tuesday.

“In Gaza, we hear heavy explosions every five to 20 minutes, from air or sea attacks," Dagga said.

Medical workers said  at least 23 Palestinian gunmen, most of them members of the Islamist Hamas group that rules the Gaza Strip, and seven civilians were killed in fighting in the territory in clashes throughout the day.

Since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on Dec. 27, at least 950 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.

Diplomatic challenge

As Egypt pressed on with an initiative designed to bring about an immediate end to Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip, Palestinian president Mahmud 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."

The Egyptian brokered efforts to reach a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in Gaza stumbled on Tuesday, with the Islamist group saying it had “substantial observations” to make on an initiative proposed by Cairo.

Although senior Hamas leader Mussa Abu Marzuk said there was "a chance" that his movement would accept a modified Egyptian ceasefire plan for Gaza, he added that any ceasefire proposal must address the group’s demands for an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a complete opening of border crossings.

"The rhetoric of Hamas has changed somewhat,” reports FRANCE 24’s Ygal Saadoun from Cairo, “at least in relation to Egypt and its attempts at mediation.”

“However Hamas still refuses a proposal that could be perceived as an acknowledgment of their defeat,” says Saadoun.

The Egyptian initiative calls for a temporary truce, followed by a long ceasefire and the opening of border crossings with the presence of Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces Hamas drove out of Gaza in 2007.

Under a ceasefire Hamas wants Israel to pull back all its troops and end the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

Israel has conditioned ending the offensive on a cessation of Gaza rocket fire against southern Israel and creating an effective mechanism to halt smuggling into Gaza.

A senior aide to Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak was due to head for Cairo on Thursday to discuss the Egyptian truce proposal.

"Israel is saying it is sending its top defence envoy Amos Gilad to Cairo," reports FRANCE 24's Annette Young from Jerusalem. "This could be interpreted as a sign of progress in this very fraught process."

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is due to arrive in the region on Wednesday for a week of talks with leaders in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Syria aimed at ending the war in Gaza.

“My message is simple, direct, and to the point: the fighting must stop. To both sides, I say: just stop now,” Ban told reporters before his departure.

The UN chief will also visit Kuwait, where he was to attend an Arab League summit next Monday.

Arab leaders agreed on Tuesday to discuss Israel's war on Gaza at a Kuwaiti economic summit next week, shunning a Qatari proposal to hold an earlier emergency meeting in Doha.

Qatar, the only Gulf Arab state with ties to Israel, renewed a call for an extraordinary Arab summit to be held on Friday in the third such plea as the Israeli offensive went into its 18th day.

But Egypt and Saudi Arabia rejected the proposal, and Kuwait said Arab leaders would instead tackle the situation in Gaza at the planned meeting in Kuwait City.

Governments in the Arab world are divided between supporters of the Islamist group Hamas and supporters of the Palestinian Authority's Mahmoud Abbas, who is in charge of the West Bank.


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