Israel Pressures Gaza with Military Operations

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Fighting continues in Gaza as Israeli armed forces search for a captured Israeli soldier held by Palestinian militants. Israeli ground forces are operating in the central part of Gaza, effectively cutting off north-south movement in the strip.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

So we just heard this described as a two-front conflict: Lebanon, to the north of Israel, and Gaza toward the south. And that's where we're going next. Israeli forces continue air and ground operations in Gaza. They're trying to pressure Hamas militants to release the Israeli soldier captured last month.

And we're going now to Gaza to NPR's Eric Westervelt. And what's the fighting been like today, Eric?

ERIC WESTERVELT reporting:

Well, Steve, overnight, a large explosion shook Gaza City here. It was an Israeli air strike on the Foreign Ministry building of the Hamas-led government in downtown Gaza city, part of a complex of offices here. The building was very badly damaged, but no workers were there at the time. It was about 2:00 a.m. in the morning, and only a few people were lightly wounded.

Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leader and foreign minister, has been largely out of sight and underground since the latest fighting escalated nearly three weeks ago. But he surfaced this morning. He toured the wreckage of his offices. He called the attack a crime. Israel called it a legitimate target, saying his offices were being used to plan terrorist activity. There were other air strikes as well, Steve, and some small firefights in Gaza yesterday.

INSKEEP: Eric, Linda mentioned making life difficult for the civilian population in order to pressure Hamas or other militant groups. What kind of pressure is the populace under right now?

WESTERVELT: Well, before this latest escalation, workers in Gaza haven't been paid four months. And now electricity is spotty throughout the Gaza Strip, as an Israeli air strike about 10 days ago hit the main power plant in Gaza. In addition, sewage is backing up in some areas, as the electricity is out and can't connect to the water pumps as well. Garbage has been piling up because city workers haven't been paid, and they don't have any gas for their cars.

So the situation, people in Gaza are under stress. But most you talk to are still defiant, and say, you know, we're certainly not going to give in to this.

INSKEEP: And so that we understand what the Israelis are doing here. They seem to be operating in the central part of Gaza, effectively cutting off communication from one side of this Strip to the other. What's their strategy?

WESTERVELT: Right. Israeli ground forces have moved from the eastern border to the middle of south central Gaza. They have control of the main north-south road in between the towns Dayr al Balah and Khan Yunis. It appears they are on their way, Steve, to cutting the Strip in half and limiting movement, north and south. Israeli soldiers are now on the outskirts of these former settlements in central Gaza that they pulled out of almost a year ago. The army says they're trying to stop militants from moving the captured soldier, Gilad Shalit, around, and trying to pressure those holding him.

It's tense down there. I spoke to people this morning. There's occasional sniper fire from both sides, and people are scared to move around at all. The Israel army today, again, warns civilians to stay away from combat areas and to stay indoors.

INSKEEP: And what's that mean for the economy there, and for life there? Are all the shops closed and so forth?

WESTERVELT: Well, the economy has been badly battered here for months. And the latest violence has certainly effected that. But I also talked to some people who are still making the commute north from towns like Khan Yunis to Gaza City for their jobs. It's a dangerous, treacherous commute. It's tense, but they say they have to get to their jobs. And they're sort of risking life and limb to get to work.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's NPR's Eric Westervelt in Gaza City on a day of conflict in the Middle East.

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