Israel raids kill Hamas leader, take Gaza death toll past 400
GAZA CITY (AFP) - Israel launched dozens of New Year air and sea strikes Thursday on Gaza, killing a senior Hamas leader as the death toll from their six-day-old blitz spiralled above 400.
Despite Israeli tanks and troops massed around the Palestinian enclave, Hamas fired more rockets deep into Israeli territory, heightening fears of an escalation in the conflict.
Israel staged more than 30 attacks using warplanes, drones and navy ships based off the Gaza coast, the military said.
One raid killed one of the top 10 Hamas leaders, Nizar Rayan, Palestinian emergency services said.
Rayan, one of the most hardline Hamas figureheads, was killed at the house of one of his four wives in the north of Gaza.
The "Operation Cast Lead" strikes also hit the Hamas parliament and justice ministry in the main Hamas government complex, rocket launching sites and tunnels used to smuggle weapons and supplies into the territory that Israel has kept virtually sealed since Hamas took control in June 2007.
Hundreds of houses around the targets have been destroyed.
The death toll reached 402 with 2,098 people wounded, the head of Gaza emergency services Moawiya Hassanein told AFP. The UN says at least 25 percent of the dead are civilians.
Israel started the air strikes Saturday in response to rocket attacks from the Gaza.
Hamas and its militant allies fired more than 10 rockets Thursday, some hitting deep within Israeli territory, without causing injuries, the military said.
One rocket slammed into an apartment block in the port of Ashdod more than 30 kilometres (20 miles) from the Gaza border, the army said, adding that a warplane attacked the squad that launched the missile.
Two rockets fell without causing damage around the desert city of Beersheva, 40 kilometres (24 miles) from the border -- the deepest strike inside Israel.
Hamas's armed wing said it fired three rockets at the Hatzerim air force base west of Beersheva. The Israeli army did not comment.
Since Saturday, Hamas and its allies have fired more than 270 rockets and mortars into Israel, killing three civilians and one soldier and wounding several dozen people.
Israel and Hamas have rebuffed efforts to organise a ceasefire though Hamas said Thursday for the first time that it would accept an EU ceasefire proposal -- if Israel met conditions including ending a blockade of the territory and all border crossings are reopened.
Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was to hold talks in Paris with President Nicolas Sarkozy and other French leaders. Israel rejected a French proposal for a 48 hour ceasefire to help humanitarian efforts.
Israel and its main ally, the United States, have said Hamas must halt the rocket attacks before there can be a ceasefire.
Peace efforts were also stalled at the UN Security Council even though UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the conflict had become "a dramatic crisis".
The civilian population in Gaza and stability throughout the Middle East "all are trapped between the irresponsibility displayed in the indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas militants and the disproportionality of the continuing Israeli military operation," Ban added.
Libya presented a draft Arab League resolution to the UN Security Council calling for an immediate ceasefire.
But the United States and Britain said it appeared biased because it did not mention the Hamas rocket attacks.
Israel has massed tanks and thousands of troops around Gaza and Defence Minister Ehud Barak has warned of a ground assault to accompany the air raids.
Olmert said on a visit to Beersheva that Israel is "not interested in conducting a long war and we do not wish to conduct a war on a broad front."
He added however, "We will deal with Hamas and terror with an iron fist."
In a defiant televised speech late Wednesday, Hamas government chief Ismail Haniya vowed Israel would be defeated. "Our people will defeat those tanks," he said.
Amid fears of a mounting humanitarian crisis, the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) made an emergency appeal for 34 million dollars to help the Gaza population.
Speaking from the agency's headquarters in Gaza, UNRWA commissioner Karen Abu Zayd said, "In my eight years in UNRWA, the urgency of an appeal for the people here has never been so acute. I am appalled and saddened when I see the suffering around me."