Violence, death toll, escalate in Israel-Gaza conflict

December 29th, 2008 - 6:01 am ICT by IANS  

Gaza, Dec 29 (DPA) The two-day death toll in Gaza Sunday rose to an estimated 300, the largest in more than 40 years, as an angry Tel Aviv retaliated with airstrikes against days of steady bombardments on the Jewish nation by Hamas militants in Gaza.The possibility of a full-out ground operation rose as Israel’s cabinet approved plans to call up more than 6,000 reservists.

Militants in the Gaza Strip launched 40 rockets and mortars at Israel Sunday alone, bringing to around 300 the number fired since a six- month truce between Israel and the Gazan militias ended Dec 19.

The Palestinian death toll was described as the highest over such a brief period since the 1967 Six-Day war.

Despite massive protests across the Arab world in Yemen, Jordan, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, the Arab League postponed its “emergency” meeting until Wednesday to discuss the situation. Anti-Israel demonstrators also gathered in London and Chicago.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, criticised Arab leaders for keeping silent and called for them to stop what he called Zionist (Israeli) wolves from committing “further crimes” against Palestinians in Gaza.

In an interview with CNN, Israel’s ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor charged that Iran was the “centre of an octopus” that was determined to undermine democracy in the region using its proxies like Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The UN’s top human rights expert, Navi Pillay, said she “strongly condemned Israel’s disproportionate use of force” in Gaza but also condemned Hamas rocket fire which killed one Israeli civilian.

Early Sunday, the UN Security Council called for an immediate end to all military actions in the Gaza Strip, after a four-hour emergency meeting.

Ban Ki-moon, the UN’s secretary-general, called for a halt to the violence, as have officials in India, the Vatican, the US and elsewhere.

In an immediate fall-out on peace efforts in the region, Syria indicated it would suspend indirect peace talks with Israel that were expected to lead to direct talks. Over the last couple of months, Turkey has been acting as a mediator for indirect talks.

The Israel Air Force kept up its attacks on the enclave, hitting, among other targets, the narrow strip of open land between Gaza and Sinai, under which Palestinians have dug scores of tunnels for smuggling. An Israeli military spokeswoman said the attack destroyed 40 tunnels. Two people died in the strike.

The attack sent hundreds of people who were working on the tunnels scurrying across the Egyptian border, only to be turned back by Egyptian security guards who opened fire on them.

Some 24 people were killed earlier Sunday when Israeli aircraft bombed Gaza City’s main security compound, which houses a central prison and several security force headquarters. Many of the dead were jailed members of Hamas’ rival Fatah movement.

The deaths brought to over 300 the number of people, more than half of them militants, killed in the Israeli operation which began Saturday in response to massive rocket barrages on southern Israel. More than 900 people have been wounded.

Israel launched more than 30 attacks on Gaza Sunday, after it hit more than 100 targets when the offensive began Saturday.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas’ bitter political rival, said he had contacted the Islamist organisation and urged its leaders to maintain the truce with Israel in order to prevent a crisis.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit accused Hamas Sunday of preventing casualties from entering Egypt for treatment.

Israel officials said any decision to send in the armour and foot-soldiers would be made later, but there were reports that tanks and armoured personnel carriers were taking up positions along the border.

In another sign that the operation could be lengthy, the government approved plans to operate a “special situation” status for communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip which allows for local authorities to close down factories or keep people in their homes.

Also Sunday, Israel opened the Kerem Shalom crossing point on the southeastern edge of the Gaza Strip to allow 30 trucks carrying 160 tonnes of flour and medicines to enter the enclave.

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