Israeli Forces Push Deeper Into Gaza

Israeli forces press on with their deadly ground, sea and air assault against Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. Israeli troops have effectively cut Gaza in half. The ground offensive is the latest phase in a military campaign that started with airstrikes. More than 500 Palestinians have been killed — including many civilians.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro. Israeli troops have effectively cut Gaza in half. Several thousand soldiers have split the middle of that strip of land along the Mediterranean Sea. The Israelis have also occupied much of the northern half that includes Gaza City.

INSKEEP: That's the area from which Palestinian rockets have been fired into Israel. The ground offensive is the latest phase in an Israeli military campaign that started with air strikes and has killed more than 500 Palestinians, including many civilians. And as we can hear in this report from NPR's Mike Shuster, the gunfire continues.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

MIKE SHUSTER: Israeli forces went into Gaza along its northern sector from several directions. The operation involved infantry, artillery, tanks, and engineering troops backed by air and naval forces. Almost immediately, the Israelis were met with resistance from Hamas militants, but they were no match for Israel's overwhelming firepower. A spokeswoman for the Israeli Defense Force, Avital Leibovich, said Israel intends to stop the missile attacks altogether.

Major AVITAL LEIBOVICH (Spokeswoman, Israeli Defense Force): This is going to be a long operation. The purpose of this stage is actually getting in charge of those areas from which launching rockets is taking place for the past years. So we are trying, really, to minimize to a minimum the launchings of the rockets towards Israeli civilians.

SHUSTER: So far the rocket attacks against Israel have not stopped. There were at least 40 such launches on Sunday. But Sunday night, Israeli troops effectively surrounded Gaza City and split the territory in two, apparently with the aim of preventing Hamas from re-supplying weapons to its fighters in the northern zone. Israeli casualties have been modest with one soldier killed by this morning and several dozen wounded. Israel says its forces killed several dozen Hamas militants, but the heavy casualties in the ground invasion have come among the civilian Palestinian population.

Tank and artillery fire have cost many Palestinians their lives over the past two days with shells exploding in shopping areas and residential neighborhoods. It's been a catastrophe, says John Ging, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency which is trying to provide food and emergency aid to the people of Gaza.

Mr. JOHN GING (Gaza Director, U.N. Relief and Works Agency): They are being killed and injured in very large numbers, and they have no end in sight. The inhumanity of this situation, the lack of reaction or action to bring this to an end, is bewildering to them.

SHUSTER: Hospitals in Gaza were already overwhelmed by the weeklong air bombardment. Then came the ground operation, and the hospitals were flooded with more dead and wounded. Erik Fosse, a Norwegian doctor working at Shifa Hospital, Gaza's largest, found the case of two boys who were brought in on Sunday to be particularly wrenching.

Dr. ERIK FOSSE (Norwegian Doctor, Shifa Hospital, Gaza): They were not allowed to play in the street because of the dangers, so they played on the roof of their home. They were hit by shrapnel. One boy died due to enormous injuries to the chest. The other boy will probably survive, but he lost a leg and has a serious head injury.

SHUSTER: Israeli officials and government spokesmen have been bombarded with questions about the level of civilian casualties in Gaza. Captain Elie Isaacson insists that Israel is doing everything it can to minimize the effect of the operation on civilians.

Captain ELIE ISAACSON (Israel Defense Force): Any military operation anywhere in the world involves risks - risks to our own personnel, risks to people in the surrounding area. But when you are dealing with the problem of the scale which we're talking about, which is the eight-year barrage of rockets onto Israeli civilians, the solution needs to be proportionate to that.

SHUSTER: The Israeli operation also appears to be aimed at destroying Hamas or at least crippling its ability to control Gaza. Several leaders of the group have already been killed. But Osama Hamdan, a Hamas spokesman in Beirut, brushed those losses off as insignificant.

Mr. OSAMA HAMDAN (Hamas Representative, Beirut): We have a leadership, and there is a chain of command in Hamas. And if one of the leaders who are killed, someone will replace him, and we will continue. There will be no disturbance. I think this will generate more to fight the occupation. Killing your people will not stop you.

SHUSTER: The Israeli military also wants to destroy Hamas' ability to smuggle additional weapons into Gaza. And overnight its forces again targeted tunnels along the border with Egypt through which weapons have moved and storage tunnels elsewhere in the territory. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Jerusalem.

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