Israel Presses On With Gaza Offensive

Israel conducted a third day of intense bombing against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip Monday. More than 300 Palestinians have been killed in the air raids. Since the attacks began Saturday, Israel says it has limited Hamas' ability to launch rocket attacks into southern Israel. Several hundred Israeli reservists have been called up.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. And the big news this morning is coming from the Middle East, where Israeli warplanes are hitting Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip for a third day. For Gaza, it has been devastating. More than 300 people have been killed in the air raids and hundreds more wounded. In a moment, we'll hear from a United Nations aid worker on humanitarian efforts that are underway in Gaza. First, we'll get an update from Eric Westervelt, our Jerusalem correspondent, who's in southern Israel. Good morning, Eric.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us; what is the latest today?

WESTERVELT: Well, right now I'm in southern Israel, near Ashkelon. That was struck again today by rockets from the Gaza strip. One Israeli has been killed and five wounded, according to Israeli police. And the Israeli military believes these punishing airstrikes that they've been inflicting on Gaza for now a third day in a row is already reducing Hamas's ability to fire rockets, despite the casualty today in Ashkelon. They believe they've reduced Hamas's ability, Renee, to fire rockets by nearly 50 percent, and the numbers sort of show that. On Saturday when this thing started and Israel started these airstrikes, there were 120 rockets. Yesterday there were 25, and so far today, there were fewer than 20. So, Israel believes that their punishing campaign of airstrikes is working, so far.

MONTAGNE: And there have been reports that Israeli troops are massing for a possible ground assault. Is it possible that they'll go in on the ground?

WESTERVELT: Well, it's certainly possible. Israeli defense leaders have not ruled that out. The Israeli government has issued a limited call-up of reservists, about 6,500 reservists. They've moved some armored units, some tanks and armored personnel carriers, closer to the border. And Renee, just this morning, they've declared the area around Gaza a closed military zone. So, that restricts and really limits people's ability to move within a four-kilometer area of Gaza. So, the new restriction, the closed military zone, and the reservist call-up certainly signal possible preparation for a ground offensive into the Gaza Strip.

MONTAGNE: Now, let's sort out these casualties. The numbers keep growing, talking hundreds and hundreds of people, if you are including those who are wounded. How many of these are civilians, and how many of them are the people that Israel is aiming at, that is to say, Hamas militants?

WESTERVELT: Well, we talked to medical officials in Gaza, including Dr. Moaiya Hassanian, who's the head of the main hospital in Gaza City. He puts the figure at over 300 dead, and he says among those are some 80 civilians, so almost a third civilians. The United Nations puts the figure a little lower and says they confirmed at least 50 civilians dead, including some women and children. Israel argues that the majority of those killed so far are Hamas gunmen, and we talked to people in Gaza. They certainly confirmed - and Hamas itself confirms - that some 200 Hamas policemen and security gunmen have been killed so far.

MONTAGNE: And this all adds up to, what? The worst incursion in decades?

WESTERVELT: Well, certainly, it's - the death toll keeps rising, and it could get worse, especially if Israel mounts a ground campaign. Gaza City and Gaza is incredibly densely populated and packed, and once you get through some of the farm fields right around the Gaza border, you quickly enter these refugee camps in north Gaza, where it's just incredibly densely packed, and then from there, it's onto this incredibly packed area of Gaza City. It would be just difficult to get through and to launch any kind of attack. And I've seen fights in Gaza City both between the Israeli army and militants and between Fatah and Hamas many times, and it just becomes incredible ugly with lots of civilians caught in the crossfire because it's so densely populated.

MONTAGNE: Just briefly, Eric. You've been - you yourself have been blocked from going into Gaza, but what do you know about how people have been coping over these last few days?

WESTERVELT: The Israeli government has blocked, for a third day in a row, foreign journalists from entering Gaza from Israel, but I spoke to several families this morning by telephone. They say it was an incredibly difficult night, sleepless for many of them, as the airstrikes continued to rock Gaza City. Several targets were hit, including the Islamic University and some security compounds. The Islamic University was run and founded by Hamas. Israel says there's a laboratory there they wanted to hit. I've been told there was extensive damage to that university. And a lot of people we talked to, Renee, say they're coping by just trying to stay indoors, hunkering down, fearful that airstrikes...

MONTAGNE: Thanks a lot, Eric. We got it, thank you. Eric Westervelt is our Jerusalem correspondent, and he spoke to us from southern Israel.

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