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Israel expands Gaza campaign with rockets
Updated: 2008-12-30 07:55

GAZA - Israel on Monday expanded its fiercest offensive in the Gaza Strip in decades, flattening a Hamas ministry and readying for a possible ground operation after militants fired deadly cross-border rocket salvoes.

An explosion is seen after an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip December 29, 2008. Israeli aircraft attacked Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip for a third day on Monday and militants launched a fatal rocket attack on Israel in defiance of an offensive that has killed more than 300 Palestinians.[Agencies] Click for more photos

The Palestinian toll from the onslaught rose to 335 dead and around 700 wounded, medical officials in Gaza said. The United Nations said at least 57 of the dead were civilians.

Rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group killed three Israelis, two after nightfall in less than an hour, increasing pressure on the government as the army amassed infantry and armoured forces along the border.

"We have an all-out war against Hamas and its kind," Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak told parliament, using a term he has employed in the past to describe a long-term struggle against Israel's Islamist enemies.

Broadening their targets to include the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, Israeli warplanes bombed the Interior Ministry, which supervises 13,000 members of the group's security forces. The building had been evacuated and there were no casualties.

A Palestinian boy watches the funeral of three children in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip December 29, 2008. Palestinian medics said five young sisters, died in an Israeli air strike in Jabalya refugee camp in northern Gaza and three other young children were killed when a bomb struck a house aimed at the nearby abandoned home of a senior Hamas militant in Rafah. [Agencies] 

The planes also attacked the homes of two top commanders in Hamas's armed wing. They were not home, but several family members were among the seven dead.

Hamas, an Islamist movement that took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, defied the Israeli assaults, the fiercest in the coastal territory since the 1967 Middle East war.

Rocket fire from Gaza at Israel intensified immediately after Hamas declared the end of a truce on December 19.

With six weeks to go to an election that polls suggest the more hawkish right-wing Likud party will win, Israel's centrist government says the offensive aims to put a stop to the rockets.

A total of four Israelis have been killed by rockets since the offensive began on Saturday.


Israel declared areas around the Gaza Strip a "closed military zone", citing the risk from Palestinian rockets, and ordered out journalists observing a build-up of armoured forces.

Excluding the press could help Israel conceal preparations for a ground incursion following three days of air strikes that have caused chaos, turned buildings to rubble and left hospitals struggling to cope.

Wounded Gazans trickled one by one into Egypt and 10 trucks carrying medical supplies were allowed to cross into the blockaded territory. Border officials said about 30 Palestinians were expected to leave for treatment.

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The United Nations Relief and Works Agency said its visits to hospitals and medical centres had produced a conservative figure of at least 57 civilian dead.

Israeli markets largely shrugged off the conflict, and stock indices rose 0.7 to 0.9 percent on Monday, after losing 1.5 percent on Sunday, the day after the attacks on Gaza began.

Oil prices rose above $40 a barrel on Monday, boosted by the weak dollar and the Gaza violence, which served as a reminder of tensions that could threaten crude supplies from the region.

Most Gazans in the territory of 1.5 million people, one of the most densely populated areas on earth, stayed at home, in rooms away from windows that could shatter in blasts from air strikes on Hamas facilities. Residents of southern Israel ran for shelter at the sound of alarms heralding incoming rockets.

In Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, an air strike killed a local commander of Islamic Jihad, three other members of the militant group and a child as they stood in the street.

Israeli aircraft also destroyed a laboratory building at the Islamic University, a significant cultural symbol in Gaza.


Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the offensive would go on until the population in southern Israel "no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages".

"(The operation could) take many days," said military spokesman Avi Benayahu.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum has urged Palestinian groups to use "all available means" against Israel, including martyrdom operations" - meaning suicide bombings.

The Gaza operation and civilian casualties have enraged Arabs across the Middle East. Protesters burned Israeli and U.S. flags to press for a stronger response from their leaders.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose writ runs only in the West Bank since his Fatah faction was ousted from Gaza by Hamas last year, had urged Hamas not to end its truce and has effectively accused it of bringing the onslaught on itself.

Nevertheless, Ahmed Qurie, Abbas's chief negotiator, said on Monday that the Palestinians had put U.S.-backed peace talks with Israel, which have anyway made little progress, on hold.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon demanded world leaders "use all possible means to end the violence" and "act swiftly and decisively to bring an early end to this impasse."

But U.S. President George W. Bush's administration, in its final weeks in office, demanded Hamas agree to a ceasefire. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the U.S. "understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself."

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said during a visit to Turkey that "Israel must stop its killing operations against Palestinians." He called for an immediate ceasefire.

France said that European Union foreign ministers would meet in Paris on Tuesday to discuss the Israeli attack on Gaza.