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29 Dec, 2008 12:03

Israel gears up for ground assault as death toll passes 300

After two days of Israeli air strikes against Hamas, Gaza is on the brink of a humanitarian disaster, with more than 315 people killed and 1,400 injured. Overcrowded hospitals are running short of medicine and staff.

Early on Monday, Israeli jets bombed a mosque in the city of Jabaliya in the northern part of the Gaza strip. Seven bodies were recovered from the debris.

Earlier, five bombs slammed into the Islamic university in the city of Gaza. The attack wounded several people and destroyed the school's laboratory.

Israel war ships, which have joined the operation, shelled Gaza city’s pier, partially destroying it.

The Israeli Defence Ministry has started calling up thousands of reservists to beef up troop numbers for a threatened ground offensive in Gaza.

Hundreds of tanks have been sent to the border with Gaza, raising concerns that a ground offensive could be imminent.

Politicians in Tel Aviv say the operation is a bid to stop Hamas firing rockets into southern Israel.

Local sources in Gaza have reported that three Palestinians were killed on Sunday in eastern Gaza in an Israeli air strike on the headquarters of the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigade, a combat wing of Hamas. Several were wounded in the attack.

Using F-16 fighter planes, Israel’s air force targeted Hamas security installations on Saturday. However, civilian facilities were also hit and an unknown number of ordinary Palestinian citizens were killed.

Hamas has vowed to avenge the action with suicide attacks on Israeli streets and cafes.

“We will not compromise or back down on our religion or cause,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said. “If you kill thousands of us, you will not be able to kill our spirit, our honour, our dignity, our resistance, our loyalty to our martyrs nor our loyalty to this novel quest.”

Earlier, Israeli military spokesman Avi Benayahu said the bombardment of Gaza was “only the beginning.” Israeli leaders said the operation would continue as long as necessary and suggested land forces might be involved, suggesting an invasion of Gaza hadn’t been ruled out.

The country’s Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, said Israeli government had a responsibility to defend its people against terrorists and its final goal was to bring peace to the region.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appealed to the Palestinians.

“You, the citizens of Gaza are not our enemies,” he said. “Hamas, Jihad and the other terrorist organisations are your enemies as they are our enemies. They brought disaster on you and they try to bring disaster to the people of Israel.”

The strike comes eight days after a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas expired. Both sides accuse the other of not adhering to their commitments.

There's no talk of another truce for the moment.

The bombing raids were aimed at Hamas security compounds. Most of the casualties were said to be in Gaza City, although there are reports of casualties in the settlement of Khan Yunis.

Hospitals in the territory are struggling to cope with the numbers of casualties. There are reports of the injured being placed on stretchers on hospital floors due to the lack of beds. Egypt has reopened its border with Gaza and is taking some of the casualties.

According to preliminary information, most of the injured are members of Hamas or the Gaza police controlled by the Islamist movement. The head of the Gaza police was among those killed.

Some of the missiles landed in highly populated areas as children were leaving school. There were reports of parents frantically looking for their children on the streets.

Israel said the strikes were in retaliation for the recent barrage of rocket and mortar fire against Israeli towns by Gaza militants.

International reaction

Following a long night of diplomatic effort the UN Security Council has issued a pre-statement calling for an immediate cease of military action in Gaza. The US-proposed text does not mention Israel or Hamas by name but it does call for borders in Gaza to open immediately for humanitarian assistance.

Speaking to the media after the debate, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that even a loss of one life is a tragedy. Still he mentioned that rockets were first fired at Israel.

“Clearly Israel has the right to self-defence. In this context, the pre-statement should be read anything but this,” he said.

Russian ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, said the document was strongly and carefully crafted statement and that the international community expects the parties to adhere to it.

Riyad Mansour, a UN Palestinian observer, stressed that the UN Security Council should take responsibility for ending the strikes:

“What is happening is a threat to international peace and security and this is the business of the Security Council. The Security Council should demand that it is stopped immediately.”

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has urged both Israel and Hamas to stop all violence and agree ceasefire.

He condemned both sides – Hamas for its rocket attacks into Israel, and Tel Aviv for what he said was excessive violence.

He also called on the international community, particularly Israel's and Palestine's neighbours, to do more to mediate a solution and find a way to stop the violence.

The UN chief also said that Israel must open all its Gaza border crossings to avoid a full-scale humanitarian crisis.

The EU has urged an immediate halt to Israeli air strikes and Palestinian attacks in and around Gaza.

Moscow has also called on Israel to stop the large-scale use of force against the Gaza Strip. It has also urged Hamas to stop its rocket attacks on Israel.

“Moscow is confident that the most urgent thing for the present day is to stop armed confrontation, restore the truce and release civilians on both sides from horror and pain,” said Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Nesterenko.

The US has urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties when targeting the Palestinian militant group. A White House spokesman added that Hamas must stop rocket attacks on Israel if the violence is to end.

Thousands of people have taken to the streets across the Arab world showing their fury at Israel's actions.

The Arab League will gather on Sunday in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, to discuss the escalation of violence in Gaza.