An injured man in Gaza is pulled from the rubble after the building he was in was hit by an Israeli airstrike
By Matthew Kalman and Jane Flanagan
Israel massed tanks on the border with Gaza on Sunday as fears grew of an imminent ground invasion following its deadliest blitz of the Palestinian territory.
As waves of Israeli warplanes struck Hamas military and leadership targets for a second day, Israel’s cabinet approved the call-up of more than 6,000 reserve soldiers.
This fuelled speculation that it might retake the Palestinian territory from which it withdrew in 2005.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband joined the United Nations in demanding an urgent ceasefire to stop the ‘massive loss of life’ in the territory, where Israel is responding to continued rocket attacks by Hamas.
But President-elect Barack Obama maintained silence on the biggest Middle East crisis since the Israeli invasion of Lebanon more than two years ago – despite his pledge to make the region his foreign policy priority.
A spokesman for Obama, on holiday in Hawaii, insisted that while he was monitoring global events, ‘there is one President at a time’.
Nearly 300 Palestinians have been killed since the bombardment began on Saturday – two thirds of them members of the military wing of Hamas who seized control of Gaza in a bloody coup against the moderate Fatah party in June 2007. At least 800 were reported injured, scores seriously, as hospitals buckled under the pressure of treating so many casualties.
The Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said: ‘Israel will continue until we have a new security environment in the south, when the population there will no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages.’
Foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who hopes to become prime minister after elections in February, said Israel was not seeking to reoccupy the Gaza Strip. Asked if it was out to topple Gaza’s Hamas rulers, she replied: ‘Not now.’
Smoke rises in Gaza after an Israel air strike
She said there was no option but to use force against Hamas, which bore responsibility for civilian casualties. ‘Before the operation we called on all the population who live near the Hamas headquarters to leave. We are doing everything to avoid or minimise civilian casualties.
But a war is a war, these things can happen.’ Miss Livni said the aim of the operation was to change the ‘reality’ that Hamas could continue to fire missiles at Israel without any serious response.
Despite the air bombardment, militants in Gaza continued to fire dozens of primitive rockets into southern Israel yesterday, causing no injuries although one Israeli was killed on Saturday.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum urged Palestinian groups to use ‘all available means, including martyrdom operations to protect the Palestinian people’ – a reference to suicide bombings in Israel. Apart from the Hamas casualties, many civilians were killed or wounded in the crowded streets and alleys of Gaza City – home to 750,000 Palestinians who live in poverty and squalor.
One witness said he saw an entire family of nine wiped out. The Israeli targets included Hamas training bases, tunnels used for smuggling beneath the border with Egypt, rocket-making workshops, weapons stores and underground missile silos. And last night the Islamic University on the Gaza Strip was bombed – a significant Hamas cultural symbol. The Palestinian death toll in the attacks was the highest since Israel seized the Strip from Egypt in the 1967 Six- Day War. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights called it ‘the bloodiest day in the history of occupation’.
Witnesses said the wounded were left lying unattended in hospital corridors while a steady stream of ambulances and private cars ferried in the casualties after each attack. Among the dead were seven teenage students at a school run by the United Nations. Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the UN Relief and Works Agency, said: ‘Death is everywhere this morning.’
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas legislator, declared: ‘These strikes fuel our popular support, our military power. We will survive. We will move forward. We will not surrender. We will not be shaken.’ Egyptian mediators who had tried to negotiate an extension to a six-month ceasefire which expired last week called for an immediate end to the fighting, but also heaped blame on Hamas for the crisis.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for a day of mourning and a general strike, but said that Hamas could have averted the Israeli attacks on Gaza.
Protesters took to the streets of capital cities around the world to condemn the Israeli attack, but Arab criticism of Israel’s reaction to the daily rocket bombardments from Gaza was muted elsewhere.
President-elect Obama’s silence on the issue at his rented beachfront mansion in Hawaii, where he intends to continue his two-week family holiday, puzzled many commentators. In July he took a hardline approach in favour of Israel.
‘If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I’m going to do everything in my power to stop that,’ he said then. ‘And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing.’ But he might be wary of further stoking tensions with a statement which he knows will be dissected by every government in the region to see in which direction he might take his administration.
Mr Miliband’s statement moved to distance London from the initial reaction by the Bush administration in Washington – and Gordon Brown – in which they notably failed to demand that Israel halt its air strikes immediately.
In statements, Mr Brown and the White House had called on Hamas to halt its rocket attacks on Israel – in sharp contrast to French president Nicolas Sarkozy, whose country holds the EU presidency, and UN Secretary General Ban Kimoon, who both demanded an immediate ceasefire.
Mr Miliband insisted that Tel Aviv must abide by its ‘humanitarian obligations’, and said he and Mr Brown were following the situation with ‘grave concern’.