New Year's Day: No Letup In Gaza Air Attacks

Huge explosions shook Gaza City as Israeli planes bombed three government buildings and the parliament on the sixth day of the Israeli offensive. On the diplomatic side, both Israel and Hamas are resisting international pressure to agree to a ceasefire. NPR's Mike Shuster talks with Steve Inskeep about the situation in Gaza.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep. The new year in Gaza began the way the old one ended, with Israeli jets in the air and bombs hitting the ground. Israeli jets struck multiple targets, including the Palestinian parliament building in Gaza City. Israeli naval forces also fired at targets inside the territory. And we're going to talk about how, if at all, the situation is changing with NPR's Mike Shuster. He's covering the story from Jerusalem. And Mike, what's the pattern of the Israeli strikes?

MIKE SHUSTER: Well, the pattern is pretty much the way it's been over the last six days, Steve. During the night Israeli warplanes hit a Hamas government complex in Gaza City that included the Ministry of Justice and the legislative assembly building, according to information furnished by the Israeli Defense Force. Hamas says the Israelis also hit buildings that housed the Transportation and Education Ministry. There were also Israeli air strikes on tunnels at the southern border of Gaza with Egypt where Israel says Hamas has been smuggling in weapons.

The Israelis targeted what they called a weapons manufacturing and storage facility in central Gaza. And the Israeli navy has gotten into the operation with ships off the coast hitting Hamas coastal outposts and rocket-launching spots, according to the Israeli Defense Force. The death toll continues to rise among Palestinians. It's pushing 400 now. That's according to Palestinian and U.N. sources. Over the past six days, there's been a total of about 500 sorties by warplanes against targets in Gaza. Hundreds more carried out by helicopters. It actually - Steve, it actually looks like the - that Israel is beginning to run out of new targets to hit.

INSKEEP: Well, as they begin to run out of new targets to hit, Mike Shuster, let me ask about something you said there. You said that they'd struck weapons manufacturing sites - at least according to the Israelis - and that they had attacked rocket-launching sites. But are the Israelis any closer to their goal, which is to stop rocket fire from coming out of Gaza into Israel?

SHUSTER: No, they're not. Rockets were fired from Gaza yesterday, and they reached all the way to the city of Beersheba to the east, which is about 24 miles away. They also hit the coastal city of Ashdod, about the same distance north of Gaza. And this is, in fact, a longer range rocket that's typical for the rocket attacks from Gaza. Since this current round of intense rocket attacks began before Christmas, three Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed. Yesterday, actually, the civilian causalities in Israel could have been much worse because one of the rockets hit a school in Beersheba. It had been closed, and there was no one there, no children at the time. But if there were, it could have been far worse.

INSKEEP: So could the Israelis send in ground troops next?

SHUSTER: They could. The Israeli Defense Force has deployed ground troops and tanks along the border with Gaza. They continue to beef up those forces. They've called up thousands of reservists. Whether Israel should launch a ground offensive against Gaza is a subject of intense debate here in Israel. One Israeli newspaper this morning is reporting that the military has been given a green light by Israel's civilian political leaders for a short but intense ground campaign. Right now the weather is bad. It's cold and rainy. And that would put off any ground offensive likely. And there are opinion polls here, interestingly enough, that are showing that only a small minority of the Israeli public wants to see an attack from the ground.

INSKEEP: Well, if only a small minority wants to see an attack, is there any motion toward peace or a truce?

SHUSTER: No, unfortunately there isn't. Yesterday, a French diplomatic initiative for a 48-hour truce to allow for humanitarian aid and food deliveries was rejected by Israel. And Hamas showed no interest in it either. There's, in fact, a lot of diplomatic activity going on involving the U.S., Europe, Egypt, and Turkey, but nothing is emerging yet that looks like it can have any real effect on this conflict.

INSKEEP: Mike, thanks very much. That's NPR's Mike Shuster in Jerusalem.

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Israeli Official Issues Warning As Airstrikes Continue

A column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets in Gaza i i
A column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets in Gaza

a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. Credit: David P. Gilkey/NPR

A rocket is fired to the north of Israel from the Gaza Strip i i

hide captionAt top, a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. The second photo shows return rocket fire from the same area in northern Gaza, launched just seconds later to the north of Israel.

Photos by David P. Gilkey/NPR
A rocket is fired to the north of Israel from the Gaza Strip

At top, a column of smoke and debris rises as the Israeli air force strikes Palestinian targets Thursday in the northern Gaza Strip. The second photo shows return rocket fire from the same area in northern Gaza, launched just seconds later to the north of Israel.

Photos by David P. Gilkey/NPR
Residents of Sderot and visitors gather on a hilltop to watch Israeli airstrikes in the distance i i

hide captionResidents of Sderot and visitors from nearby towns gather on a hilltop in southern Israel overlooking Gaza to catch a glimpse of Israeli warplanes dropping bombs in the distance Thursday. Sderot was also under fire from incoming Qassam rockets fired from Gaza during the day.

David P. Gilkey/NPR
Residents of Sderot and visitors gather on a hilltop to watch Israeli airstrikes in the distance

Residents of Sderot and visitors from nearby towns gather on a hilltop in southern Israel overlooking Gaza to catch a glimpse of Israeli warplanes dropping bombs in the distance Thursday. Sderot was also under fire from incoming Qassam rockets fired from Gaza during the day.

David P. Gilkey/NPR

Israeli fighter jets pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip for a sixth day Thursday, and Palestinian doctors say the death toll in the territory now tops 400. One airstrike Thursday killed Nizar Rayan, the most senior Hamas leader to die since the Israeli offensive began Saturday.

Meanwhile, rocket fire continued to rain down on towns in southern Israel, and a senior Israeli Cabinet minister warned that the conflict is far from over.

Not long after word of Rayan's death, warning sirens sounded throughout Israeli communities within rocket range of Gaza: More barrages were on the way. In Ashkelon, people abandoned their cars in the street and fled for cover.

Rockets also hit Ashdod and Beersheba again. Both cities are about 25 miles from Gaza. No one was seriously wounded in the latest rocket attacks.

Inside Gaza, the fire from the air proved far more deadly. At least 17 Palestinians were killed Thursday, according to a senior medical official in Gaza, and 92 were wounded.

Rayan was an important figure in Hamas' political and military wings. A professor of Islamic law and an imam, or Islamic preacher, Rayan openly advocated renewing suicide bomb attacks against Israel. He was in his house in north Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp when the bombs struck.

The Israeli military said in a statement that the house was used as a weapons storage site and Hamas communications center. In addition to Rayan, the airstrike killed at least 11 others, including several of his children and two of his four wives. The airstrike also wounded civilians in the densely packed neighborhood.

Rami Abu Safeya lives in the Jabalia refugee camp near Rayan's house. Reached by telephone, he said, "We laid down on the floor, glass and windows broke all around us. The explosions continued, and then 10 people in my house ran away. Many people in the neighborhood were injured."

Israeli Official: 'It Will Take Time'

Back in Ashkelon on Thursday, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said the operation against Hamas is far from over.

"This is not going to be an easy one. Therefore, we have to be very patient — very patient and very determined. And it will take time," Ramon said.

Israeli leaders have said from the start that the goal of the punishing air and naval bombardments is to create "a new security reality" in the south and end Hamas rocket fire — not to overthrow the Islamist group or re-occupy Gaza.

But on Thursday, Ramon argued that regime change in Gaza should be the wider goal of the operation. Ramon said ideally the moderate Palestinian Authority leadership led by Mahmoud Abbas — which now controls only the West Bank — should be returned to power in Gaza.

"Even to create a Palestinian state is impossible because the Hamas is dominating Gaza. It's impossible. And if the Hamas will continue to dominate Gaza, it will be impossible to continue the Annapolis process. Any peace process will be almost be impossible to reach. And that's exactly what the Hamas wants," Ramon said.

Conflicting Visions Among Israeli Leaders

But hardly anyone believes Israel can realistically uproot Hamas's deep support among Gaza's 1.5 million residents and impose a new, more moderate Palestinian leadership in the territory. Indeed, a senior Israeli official said later that Ramon was expressing his personal opinion and not government policy. The official said "regime change is not the operation's goal. We have no illusions about that. The goal is to bring about a new quiet in the south."

That stated goal could give Hamas leverage in any cease-fire talks. Hamas leaders have said they want an end to Israel's stifling economic blockade of Gaza in exchange for a new, informal truce.

The conflicting visions among Israeli leaders of what Gaza might look like when the shooting stops is reminiscent of the 2006 Lebanon war. Then, Israeli officials seemed frequently at odds over the goals and day-after scenarios of a conflict that many Israelis say marked a profound failure of leadership.

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