Middle East

Israeli Gaza Bombing Continues; Deaths Near 350

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Map of Israel and Palestinian territories
Alyson Hurt/NPR

Israeli warplanes struck again Monday over the Gaza Strip, the third day of a major offensive aimed at stopping Hamas rocket attacks on towns in southern Israel.

Palestinian doctors in Gaza say the three-day death toll now is approaching 350, including some 80 civilians and more than 1,000 wounded. It's the deadliest violence in Gaza since the 1967 Middle East war.

Two Israelis have been killed by Hamas rockets since the Israeli offensive began.

Rania El Hilou and her husband live in an apartment tower not far from a main Hamas security building in central Gaza City. Israel bombed the Hamas site multiple times over the past three days. The 25-year-old is pregnant with her first child.

Israel is not allowing journalists to enter Gaza. Via phone, Hilou says the air raids have rattled her building and sent debris flying.

"You just wake up in the morning, and you hear the bombing, and the whole building is shaking, and everybody is scared," she says. "All the windows in my apartment were broken as a result of this bombing. And now we don't have the time or the money or even the equipment outside to repair these windows."

And the winter cold and rain have arrived. There are frequent power, water and phone outages, Hilou says, and few dare venture outside. She and her husband have moved a mattress into what they hope is a more protected area of their flat.

Hilou, who teaches at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, says she looked out her window after one airstrike and saw frantic parents running toward a nearby school — and that she wondered what kind of life her own child might have in today's Gaza.

"I saw all these women and men in their sleeping wear, running in the streets going to the schools to take their kids from there," she says. "Some of these kids were injured. Others were traumatized by the huge bombings. So all these views, it's like a horror movie, and you're just watching over your window. It's very scary situation right now."

Israeli military officials say the airstrikes are reducing the Hamas fire from Gaza. They say the air force has already cut Hamas' ability to launch rockets by 50 percent. But Israel gave similar upbeat assessments in the early days of the 2006 Lebanon war, which many Israelis view as a failure. Then, Hezbollah guerrillas launched rocket barrages every day during the monthlong conflict that the militant group declared a victory.

On Monday, Hamas rocket fire continued, albeit at lower levels than over the weekend.

In Sderot, which borders Gaza, 55-year-old resident Moshe Amsalem stands atop a small hill overlooking the territory. He and a few policemen watch casually through binoculars as plumes of smoke from the airstrikes rise over north Gaza. Amsalem nods approvingly. They've suffered a long time under Hamas rockets, he says, and now it's payback.

"This is the only way. They don't understand any other way," he says. "I hope it continues until they are totally erased. You cannot live with rockets and explosions in the middle of the night, and our children running scared."

Suddenly an alert sounds across the town warning that Qassam rockets have been launched from Gaza toward Sderot, sending everyone running for cover.

Inside a half-constructed house, a policeman sets his wristwatch and counts the seconds until impact.

At least three Qassam rockets slam into a residential area nearby, badly damaging one house. No one is home; Sderot, these days, is largely deserted.

Just over the hill inside Gaza, Israeli attack helicopters buzz overhead as clouds of smoke from airstrikes rise in north Gaza.

In Beit Lahia, a Gaza doctor says five Hamas militants were killed in one airstrike — along with two civilians. Rania El Hilou, whose family is hunkered down in Gaza City, says writing and talking about the ongoing bombardment help her cope.

"You keep praying and making telephone calls to your friends and neighbors because, you know, there is no place safe in Gaza," she says. "We just want to get back to school and normal life, no matter who is in charge here."

Israeli Planes Pound Gaza Targets

Map of the region
Alyson Hurt/NPR

Israeli warplanes pounded Hamas targets in Gaza for a third day Monday, hitting buildings and key installations linked to the Islamic group as Israel continued a major offensive that has killed more than 300 Palestinians.

Israel launched its deadliest attack on Gaza in decades Saturday in hopes of striking a knockout blow against Hamas, which controls the region. The offensive came in retaliation for rocket fire aimed at civilians in southern Israeli towns after Hamas ended a six-month unilateral cease-fire.

The three-day death toll included seven children younger than 15 who were killed in two separate strikes late Sunday and Monday, medics said. Hospitals report that they are having difficulty coping with casualties.

Most of those killed since Saturday are thought to have been members of Hamas security forces. The United Nations agency in charge of Palestinian refugees said at least 51 of the dead were civilians.

The strikes appear to have hampered Hamas' rocket-launching capability, but a rocket fired at the Israeli city of Ashkelon killed a man there Monday and wounded several others. On Sunday, Hamas missiles struck near the city of Ashdod, twice as far from Gaza as Ashkelon and only 25 miles from Tel Aviv.

Israel has declared the area around Gaza a closed military zone. In Jerusalem, Israel's Cabinet approved a call-up of 6,500 reserve soldiers Sunday in possible preparation for a ground offensive, an option that Israeli military leaders would not rule out.

Meanwhile, thousands of people throughout the Middle East have taken to the streets carrying images of the death and destruction in Gaza to denounce Israel's assault.

The Bush administration has blamed the renewed violence on the militant Hamas.

"In order for the violence to stop, Hamas must stop firing rockets into Israel and agree to respect a sustainable and durable ceasefire," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

Hamas has "shown its true colors as a terrorist organization," he said.

President-elect Barack Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, said the incoming administration "wants to be a constructive force in helping to bring about the peace and security that both the Israelis and the Palestinians want and deserve."

Alexrod, speaking on CBS' Face the Nation on Sunday, said Obama would "work closely with the Israelis. ... But he will do so in a way that will promote the cause of peace, and work closely with the Israelis and the Palestinians on that — toward that objective."

The European Union has called for a halt in the fighting but U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday admonished world leaders for not doing enough.

"I think regional and international partners have not done enough. They should do more," Ban said in a statement, his third in as many days on the subject of Gaza.

"They should use all possible means to end the violence and encourage political dialogue, emphasizing peaceful ways of resolving differences," he said.

Hundreds of demonstrators convened Sunday outside the Israeli embassy in London and in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in Paris to protest Israeli actions.

Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year military occupation, but Israeli forces have repeatedly crossed into the territory to hunt militants firing rockets at Israeli towns.

From NPR and wire reports



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