Israel escalates offensive into Gaza cities
GAZA CITY (AFP) - Israeli tanks and helicopter gunships went blazing into towns across the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, attacking Hamas targets and searching for its leaders as the war death toll approached 600.
Troops fought Islamist militants around the back alleys of Gaza's main city in the heaviest fighting of the 11-day-old offensive to halt rocket attacks on Israel. Hamas made its deepest rocket strike yet into Israel.
On the diplomatic front, Arab nations pressed the case for a UN Security Council resolution condemning the onslaught, but Israel rejected ceasefire calls by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and other leaders.
"Europe must open its eyes," President Shimon Peres told an EU ministerial delegation that demanded a truce. "We are not in the business of public relations or improving our image. We are fighting against terror and we have every right to defend our citizens."
Black smoke covered districts of Gaza City and the edges of Deir al-Balah and al-Bureij where heavy fighting raged on Tuesday.
Tanks backed by helicopter gunships rolled into the southern town of Khan Yunis before dawn, to be met by return fire from Hamas and its allies, witnesses said.
One air strike killed 12 people -- including seven children -- from the same family in Gaza City. Israeli strikes also hit two UN-run schools, one crowded with refugees, killing at least five Palestinians, medics and UN officials said.
Two people were killed when an artillery shell slammed into a school in Khan Yunis and three people were killed in an air strike on a school in the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City, they said.
Four Israeli soldiers were killed in two friendly fire incidents during the overnight surge in fighting, the army said. Five have now died since Saturday.
About 12 Hamas rockets were fired over the border, one reaching 45 kilometres (28 miles) inside Israeli territory, the deepest yet, lightly wounding a baby, the army said.
Three civilians and one soldier have been killed by rocket fire inside Israel since the offensive was launched.
Protests against Israel's action have spiralled around the globe and the French president led new calls for a truce in talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Monday.
"We, Europe, want a ceasefire as soon as possible," Sarkozy said in Jerusalem. "Time is working against peace. The weapons must be silenced and there must be a temporary humanitarian truce."
But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed that the campaign will continue until Israel completely wipes out Hamas's ability to fire rockets into Israel.
Sarkozy also called Hamas rocket attacks "irresponsible and unforgivable," sparking the Islamists' retort that he was "totally biased" towards Israel.
Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on Hamas on December 27 with a massive air bombardment of Gaza , and sent in thousands of ground troops a week later.
Since then, at least 592 Palestinians have been killed, including more than 160 children, and more than 2,700 wounded, according to Gaza medics.
Israel has denied there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza but the International Committee of the Red Cross said Tuesday that there is a "full blown" crisis and people are dying because ambulances cannot reach them.
"I cannot sufficiently underline the level of concern and anxiety that is felt at the ICRC in relation to the crisis in Gaza," said Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the ICRC director of operations.
"There is no doubt in my mind that we are dealing with a full blown and major crisis in humanitarian terms. The situation for the people in Gaza is extreme and traumatic as a result of 10 days of uninterrupted fighting."
Kraehenbuehl said ICRC staff in Gaza described the past night as "the most frightening to date" in the territory where there is no power or water and finding food is a daily struggle.
Israeli officials have insisted they are doing all to prevent civilians casualties and have blamed Hamas for operating from civilian centres.
Olmert and Sarkozy agreed the French leader should pursue a peace deal involving
Egypt which brokered a six-month truce that ended on December 19. Hamas refused to renew the deal, sparking the war.
The UN Security Council was to meet again on Tuesday to weigh an Arab call for an immediate ceasefire and for protection of Palestinian civilians, diplomats said.
Israel's main ally the United States has given strong support to the operation, with President George W. Bush saying any truce must ensure an end to rocket fire.