Nidal al-Mughrabi / Reuters – 2008-03-04 00:35:36
• Video — Israel Intensifies Gaza Raids
GAZA (March 1, 2008) — Israeli forces killed 61 people in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, the bloodiest day for Palestinians since an uprising against Israeli occupation began in 2000.
Almost half the dead were civilians, including children.
Israel, which lost two soldiers, seemed ready to press home its fiercest air and ground assault since it pulled troops back to the borders of the coastal enclave in 2005. It blamed rocket attacks by the Islamist Hamas movement for provoking four days of fighting, in which 96 Palestinians have been killed.
The U.N. Security Council prepared to meet in emergency session. A U.N. official in Gaza appealed for international action to end the “inhuman suffering” of its 1.5 million people and said killing women and children would not help Israel.
US President George W. Bush sounded more supportive of his Israeli allies. While regretting all loss of life, his spokesman said: “There is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self-defence.” [Palestinian civilians don’t count].
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a sworn enemy of the Islamist militant group Hamas which took control of Gaza from his forces in June, called the attack “more than a holocaust”. Aides to Abbas said fighting could wreck new US-backed peace talks. Israeli officials said Palestinian chief negotiator Ahmed Qurie called his Israeli counterpart, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, to call off a meeting due on Monday. But Abbas’s aides said no decision to suspend the process had been taken.
Bush hopes for a deal on founding a Palestinian state before he leaves office in January. Many view that as very optimistic.
At least 30 of the dead were civilians, among them women and children, said Palestinian doctors who worked round the clock.
Two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven wounded, the army said — its first deaths in Gaza since October. As troops backed by tanks pushed deep into areas from where rockets are fired, they met heavy gunfire and landmines, residents said.
Another 48 rockets hit Israel, wounding several people. An Israeli civilian was killed on Wednesday, the first since May.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Israel was “not happy” civilians were being hurt but blamed Hamas for firing rockets from built-up areas and said it would “pay the price”.
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to visit Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert next week. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said: “If Israeli aggression continues, it will bury the peace process in the rubble.”
A spokesman for Israel’s chief negotiator said: “What Israel is doing in Gaza is fighting terror and it will be continued.”
At least 30 gunmen were killed, medical staff and Hamas said. Among targets was the empty office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, whom Abbas fired as his prime minister after the Islamists routed his Western-backed forces in Gaza.
Medical staff said four people living nearby were wounded. “Uncle, I don’t want to die. I want my dad,” a toddler screamed as doctors tried to treat burn wounds across her body in Gaza’s main Shifa hospital. The girl had been in a house which the Israeli army said was used to store and make weapons.
One of the dead civilians was a mother who was preparing breakfast for her children when she was hit by gunfire, relatives and medical workers said. One missile slammed into a crowd of Palestinians, killing four civilians, medics said.
In Damascus, exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said: “I say to the Zionist leaders, if they decided to raid Gaza, they will be fought not by dozens … but … by 1.5 million people.”
A senior U.N. official in Gaza, John Ging, appealed to world leaders to stop the fighting:
“Killing Palestinian women and children will not bring security to the people of Israel,” said Ging. He also said Hamas’s rocket fire would not achieve Palestinians’ goals.
Daily rocket fire for months has put Olmert under pressure from voters to act. But the government, chastened by a costly war against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon in 2006, is wary of an outright invasion of the densely populated coastal region.
Olmert’s deputy, Vice Premier Haim Ramon, said: “We need to act with all our might, but without taking steps that will hurt us more than help us — by which I mean reoccupying Gaza.”
He said the main targets would be those directly involved in firing rockets and the broader Islamist leadership in Gaza.
Washington has urged Israel to “consider the consequences”.
Abbas’s power is now restricted to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. While he would shed few tears if Israel destroyed Hamas, he risks losing already patchy support in the West Bank if he is not seen to be speaking out against the Israeli military action.
Reflecting the depth of factional rifts among Palestinians, Abbas rejected a charge by Meshaal that he was giving cover to Israel. He declared Sunday a day of national mourning.
Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch, Adam Entous, Avida Landau and Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta and Mohammed Assadi in Ramallah) (Writing by Alastair Macdonald, editing by Ralph Gowling)
Source: Reuters North American News Service
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