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Bloodiest attack in 60 years in Gaza Strip
Updated: 2008-12-29 07:41

GAZA - Israel was on the brink of launching a full-scale invasion into Gaza on Sunday, following massive air strikes over the weekend that killed more than 280 Palestinians.

Demonstrators shout slogans and hold on a shoe during a protest against Israeli attacks on Gaza in front of the Israeli embassy in Madrid December 28, 2008. The banner reads "Sanctions Now".[Agencies] Click for more photos

It was bloodiest weekend for Palestinians in 60 years of conflict and triggered worldwide calls for peace and outpourings of fury within the Arab world.

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Israeli leaders said the strikes on Hamas military targets were a response to Hamas rocket and mortar fire a week ago, which ended a six-month cease-fire.

Last night, Israeli tanks were poised to enter the impoverished enclave where 1.5 million Palestinians live.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet yesterday also approved calling-up of 6,500 reservists, a government official said.

"Israel will continue (the campaign) 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," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert.

Israeli aircraft flattened Hamas's main security compound, killing at least four security men, a health official said. The number of Palestinians killed since Saturday rose to 298 and more than 900 Palestinians were wounded.

"Palestine has never seen an uglier massacre," said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh.

His Islamist group vowed revenge including suicide bombings in Israel's "cafes and streets".

One Israeli was killed on Saturday by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip.

Despite the build-up of troops on the border, Israeli military commentators said the offensive did not appear to be aimed at retaking the Gaza Strip or destroying the territory's Hamas government, ambitious goals that could prove difficult and politically risky to achieve ahead of Israel's Feb 10 parliamentary election.

Instead, they said Israel wanted to strengthen its deterrence power and force Hamas into a new truce that would lead to a long-term halt to cross-border rocket salvoes.

Thousands rallied in cities in the Arab world to condemn Israel's air raids on Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.

Major anti-Israeli rallies were held in Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.


In the Gaza Strip, where normally bustling streets were largely traffic-free, Palestinians stood outside their homes to chat with neighbors about the dangers ahead as the roar of Israeli aircraft and explosions echoed in the distance.

"I kept my children at home. No need to study today," one Palestinian parent said.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak ordered schools, due to reopen on Tuesday after the Jewish holiday of Hannukah, to remain shut in southern Israeli communities.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas blamed Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from his Fatah group in 2007, for triggering Israel's raids by not extending the cease-fire that Egypt brokered in June.

"We talked to them (Hamas) and we told them 'please, we ask you, do not end the truce. Let the truce continue and not stop' so that we could have avoided what happened," he said in Cairo.

Israel's leading political parties suspended their electioneering for the Feb 10 ballot. Opinion polls tip the right-wing Likud party to win.

Aid groups said they feared the Israeli operation could lead to a humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.

The United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA) said its food and cash distribution to 750,000 Gazans had been suspended but it hoped to bring in 10 truck-loads of medical supplies today.

Gaza hospitals said they were running out of medical supplies because of a long-standing Israeli-led blockade.

Hamas, which won a parliamentary election in 2006 but was shunned by Western powers over its refusal to renounce violence and recognize Israel, estimated at least 180 members of its security forces had been killed with at least 15 women and some children.

Among the civilian killed were seven teenagers, students at an UNRWA school, who died in the Israeli air strike while waiting for a bus to take them home, said Christopher Gunness, an UNRWA spokesman.

"Death is everywhere this morning," he said.