At Least 50 Killed in Israeli Strikes on Gaza
JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Jacki Lyden. Andrea Seabrook is on assignment.
Israeli forces killed at least 50 Palestinians today as they pursued air and ground operations in the Gaza Strip. Doctors in Gaza report that nearly half of those killed were civilians. Two Israeli soldiers died in the operation. It was the deadliest day of fighting since Hamas seized control of Gaza last June.
Israel stepped up its defenses this week as rockets fired from Gaza landed deeper into Israel and caused panic and one fatality. I spoke with NPR's Eric Westervelt earlier about the latest fighting.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Well, Jacki, overnight, Israeli infantry in armor backed by attack helicopters and fighter jets moved into north Gaza in Jebaliya, a town on the outskirts of Gaza City, and we're told there was fierce combat most of the day today around eastern Jebaliya between Israeli forces and gunmen mostly from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Witnesses I talked to, Jacki, say the mood in Gaza is incredibly grim and desperate. Kids are scared, people are huddled indoors all day; the sounds of explosions, gunfire attack, helicopters and ambulance sirens sort of echoed across Gaza City and North Gaza.
The death toll has climbed all day. Dr. Moaiya Hassanain, a medical director in Gaza City, told us at least 50 people have been killed so far, and he says nearly half of the dead were civilians including several children. And the death toll since Wednesday from the fighting in Gaza is now at least 75 dead.
LYDEN: Eric, what prompted Israel's wider offensive today?
WESTERVELT: There's been increased rocket fire from Gaza into Israeli border towns, Jacki, ever since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip last June from its rival, Fatah. But the latest escalation began mid-week as Israeli air strikes killed some five militants and Hamas retaliated with a huge barrage of rockets at the border town of Sderot that killed one Israeli civilian. At the same time, militants hit the coastal city of Ashkelon with what a senior Israeli police official told me were longer-range, Russian-made Grad rockets. These rockets did little damage, but having these longer-range rockets rain down on a city of more than 100,000 really shook Israel and prompted wide calls for a bigger military campaign against the rocket launchers and the Hamas government in Gaza.
LYDEN: The Palestinian authority of President Mahmoud Abbas has been isolated in the West Bank since Hamas took over Gaza last year. How did President Abbas react to the fighting?
WESTERVELT: Well, his government certainly has no love for Hamas. There's still deep tensions there, but he's under intense public pressure given the rising death toll. I mean, today Abbas denounces Israeli attack and he called for an emergency meeting at the United Nations. And he also held an urgent meeting with his senior aides, we're told, in which some of those senior aides pushed him hard to formally suspend peace talks with Israel as a protest. So far, these West Bank leaders have not made any formal announcement to suspend those talks, but we're told that that's still under discussion.
LYDEN: Well, Eric, as you know, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is making another trip to the region this week to try to prod Abbas and Israel into peace talks. What's been the Israeli political response to today's developments?
WESTERVELT: Well, tonight, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon told Israeli TV that Israel will continue to target, as he put it, everyone who is directly or indirectly involved in the rocket fire from Gaza to target Gaza's governing infrastructure, by which he means Hamas, of course. But Ramon also said Israel had no intention of reoccupying Gaza. Israel says it will continue to press its attacks into Gaza until the rocket fire stops, but Jacki, we should note that today, even amidst all this violence on the ground inside North Gaza, militants managed to fire some 40 rockets and mortar rounds that hit inside Israel today.
LYDEN: NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem. Thanks for talking with us, Eric.
WESTERVELT: You're welcome.
LYDEN: And the U.N. Security Council meets this evening on the situation in the Middle East, including Palestine.