Israel Takes Gaza Fight to Next Level in a Day of Strikes
GAZA — Israeli aircraft and troops attacked Palestinian positions in northern Gaza on Saturday, killing at least 54 people and wounding more than 100 in the deadliest day of fighting in more than a year. Two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven wounded, the military said.
The Israeli attacks, mostly from the air on a clear, bright day, were aimed at stopping rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, the Israelis said, especially after Ashkelon, a large city 10 miles from Gaza, came under fire from more advanced, Katyusha-style rockets of Iranian design.
Half the dead were reported to be Hamas gunmen or those belonging to affiliated groups like Islamic Jihad. But at least 19 Palestinian civilians also died in the heavily populated area, including four children, according to Dr. Moawiya Hassanain of the Gazan Health Ministry.
More than 80 Palestinians have died since fighting surged on Wednesday; in addition to the soldiers, an Israeli died in Sderot from a rocket, and six Israelis were wounded Saturday from rocket strikes in Ashkelon.
The fighting brought harsh criticism from the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, who reportedly threatened to call off negotiations with Israel over a peace treaty. “We tell the world: watch and judge what’s happening, and judge who is committing international terrorism,” Mr. Abbas said in Ramallah, on the West Bank.
Mr. Abbas, who has referred to the rocket firing as useless provocation, said last week that armed conflict remained an option if negotiations failed.
An Israeli spokesman, David Baker, said that Israel was conducting “defensive measures” to protect its civilians from rocket fire against cities, which Mr. Baker called terrorism. “We have over 200,000 Israelis in range of Palestinian rockets. We cannot allow this to go on.”
The Israeli deputy defense minister, Matan Vilnai, said the military was engaged in “an enlarged operation and not a major ground operation” of the type Israeli politicians have been pressing for. Mr. Vilnai told Israel Radio that “we are using mostly air units” and that Israeli forces “are permanently engaged in Gaza, and what we are doing now is within the scope of such activities.”
Early Sunday, the United Nations Security Council issued a statement condemning the escalation of the fighting and urging Israelis and Palestinians “to immediately cease all acts of violence,” The Associated Press reported.
The statement, though not a formal resolution, also stressed that the violence “must not be allowed to deter the political process” aimed at “establishing two states — Israel and Palestine — living side by side in peace and security.”
About two dozen rockets landed in Israel on Saturday, including seven Katyusha-style rockets in or near Ashkelon, lightly wounding a woman and two children just after midnight. Saturday afternoon, another rocket hit the Ashkelon marina shopping center, wounding three others, the Israeli military said.
Israeli troops began their operation just after midnight, concentrating on a hilly area near crowded Jabaliya, within two miles of the Gazan border, where many of the rockets have been launched from among the civilian population. Late Saturday, the Israeli military confirmed that two soldiers had been killed and that seven others, including an officer, had been wounded.
In Gaza on Friday, Hussein Dardouna, 50, was burying his son, Omar, 14, killed while playing with his friends by an Israeli strike aimed at a rocket-launching team. “I couldn’t identify the body of my son,” he said. “It was very hard until I found the head of my son. I’m against these rockets, but I am afraid. What can I do? If I protest they will hit me, they will kill me.”
A woman at the funeral said: “Everyone is afraid now. Where is Abu Mazen, where is Haniya?” she asked, referring to Mr. Abbas and the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya. “Come and protect us.”
The Israeli operation killed at least 10 fighters from Hamas, which has run Gaza since it drove out Fatah forces in fierce internal fighting last June.
Most residents hid in their homes. The Palestinian dead on Saturday included at least four children.
Hamas said that one girl, Malak Karfaneh, 6, died Friday night from an Israeli strike on Beit Hanun in northern Gaza, but residents said that a Palestinian rocket had fallen short and landed near the house, killing her and wounding three siblings.
Israeli officials say that up to half of Palestinian rockets — mostly crude, inaccurate Qassams — fall inside Gaza. But when Hamas broke open the border with Egypt, Israeli officials say, the militants were able to bring in more of the manufactured Katyusha-style rockets as well as antitank missiles and concrete, for building fortifications.
The United Nations agency that deals with Palestinian refugees closed down the 37 schools it runs in northern Gaza.
“We are living in the middle of the battle zone,” Rami Muhammad Ali, 21, told Reuters by phone from Jabaliya. “We wanted to flee the house, but we’ve been trapped since last night.”
He described the scene, saying, “Rockets and missiles are whistling by all the time, and the building has been shaken by mines the Palestinians are setting off against the Israeli soldiers.”
A Hamas military spokesman who calls himself Abu Obeida said, “The Zionist forces have failed in Gaza before.” Hamas, under some political pressure from the effective isolation of Gaza and deteriorating conditions there, seems to be trying to lure Israel into a major ground operation.
The Israelis have been cautious, with little desire to reoccupy Gaza and take full responsibility for its 1.5 million inhabitants, nearly 70 percent of them refugees or their descendants. The Israeli security cabinet will meet during the week to discuss Gaza, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arriving as well.
She has defended Israel’s right to defend itself but has urged restraint. A major Israeli operation would most likely put a crimp in American-sponsored peace talks between Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel.
A White House spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe, said late Saturday: “We call for an end to violence and all acts of terrorism directed against innocent civilians. There is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self-defense.”