Israel presses on with Gaza war as death toll tops 850
Agence France-Presse
Published: Saturday January 10, 2009

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GAZA CITY (AFP) Israel pressed its air and ground assault on Hamas in Gaza on Sunday as the death toll in the 16-day-old war passed 850 and the Islamist movement vowed it would not negotiate a truce "under fire."

Medics in the embattled Gaza Strip said three Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded by heavy Israeli tank fire and air strikes early on Sunday, some allegedly by banned white phosphorous shells that Israel denied using.

With the body count spiralling, Hamas remained defiant in the face of Egyptian-led efforts to broker a cease fire.

Top Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said the movement would not accept any truce without the withdrawal of all Israeli forces and the lifting of the blockade slapped on the territory when the Islamists seized power in 18 months ago.

"With an open mind we will work with any initiative or any resolution but only based on these demands. We will not accept negotiations on a truce under fire," he said.

A closed-door briefing was told on Saturday that Israeli troops had killed more than 550 Palestinian fighters since the operation began, a senior military official told AFP.

Army spokesman Jacob Dallal declined to confirm the number but said "several hundred" fighters, most of them from Hamas, had been killed since Israel launched its offensive on December 27.

"There is no question that the military ability of Hamas has been diminished," he said.

As fighting spilled over into the early hours of Sunday, the army was accused by Palestinian doctors of using banned white phosphorous shells against civilians, a claim denied categorically by the army.

A woman was killed and 60 people hurt in tank shelling on a village east of Khan Yunis, said Dr Yusef Abu Rish of the city's Nasser hospital.

Of those, 55 "were burned over their bodies in a way that can only be caused by white phosphorous," he told AFP.

His claim was echoed by Dr Muawiya Hassanein, head of Gaza emergency services, who said these weapons had already been used by Israel in the Gaza offensive.

Army Captain Guy Spigelman rejected the report. "We deny that we were operating in that area."

He also reiterated what a spokeswoman had said earlier, that "there is no use of white phosphorous. Everything we use is according to international law."

White phosphorus is used as a smokescreen or for incendiary devices, but can also be deployed as an anti-personnel weapon capable of causing potentially fatal burns.

Meanwhile, Hamas claimed it was repulsing the Israeli offensive, with Meshaal, the head of its powerful Syria-based politburo, accusing Israel of carrying out a "Holocaust" in Gaza.

"You have lost on the moral and humanitarian fronts ... and you have created a resistance in every house," Meshaal said in a pre-recorded statement aired on Arab satellite television.

"I can say with full confidence that on the military level the enemy has totally failed, it has not achieved anything.

"Has it stopped the rockets?" he asked of Israel's declared aim in launching the offensive.

Since the Israeli offensive began on December 27, at least 854 people have been killed, including 270 children, 93 women, and 12 paramedics, according to Palestinian medics.

Another 3,490 people have been wounded, overwhelming Gaza's beleaguered medical facilities.

Meanwhile, Hamas and other armed groups fired at least 13 rockets into Israel on Saturday, wounding four people, the army said.

Egypt has been spearheading Western-backed efforts to end the fighting. On Saturday, President Hosni Mubarak met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who urged Israel and his Hamas rivals to accept the plan "without hesitation."

A Hamas delegation was also due to hold talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Mubarak is calling for an immediate truce, opening Gaza's border crossings, preventing arms smuggling and a call for Palestinians to resume reconciliation talks.

Abbas stressed he wanted an international force in Gaza rather than controlling traffic on the Egyptian side of the border, as suggested by European countries.

But Meshaal said Hamas "will consider any international troops imposed on our people as an occupation force" and Hamas and other groups have said they will oppose any measure that hinders the armed "resistance."

Both Hamas and Israel have already brushed aside a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate truce in the territory.

The conflict has sparked worldwide pro-Palestinian demonstrations, including rallies in Europe that drew tens of thousands of protesters.

In London, thousands of protesters clashed with police around the Israeli embassy, while in Paris protesters shattered windows and set scooters on fire after a rally attended by more than 30,000 people.

In Tel Aviv, a few hundred Israelis gathered to call for an end to the fighting in a rally organised by the Peace Now movement.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or in rocket attacks since the operation began, as Palestinian militants have fired more than 600 rockets, some of them penetrating deeper than ever inside Israel.