ISRAEL POUNDS GAZA – AT LEAST 230 DEAD

ISRAEL STRIKES GAZA

HAMAS PRESS CONFERENCE AFTER AIRSTRIKES

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A member of the Hamas’s security forces inspects a building that was destroyed
by an Israeli air strike on Gaza City

BY NIDAL al MUGHRABI

GAZA – Israeli warplanes and combat helicopters pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Saturday, killing at least 230 people in the bloodiest day for Palestinians in more than 20 years.

Palestinian militants responded with rocket salvoes that killed an Israeli man and wounded several others, medics said.

Black smoke billowed over Gaza City, where the dead and wounded lay scattered on the ground after more than 30 air strikes destroyed several security compounds, including two where Hamas was hosting graduation ceremonies for new recruits.

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Palestinians inspect the site of an Israeli air strike in the southern town of Rafah

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Among the dead were the Hamas-appointed police chief, Tawfiq Jabber, the head of Hamas’s security and protection unit, and the governor of central Gaza, according to medical workers.

At the main police headquarters, some rescue workers beat their heads and shouted “God is greatest” as one badly wounded man lying nearby quietly recited verses from the Koran.

The Israeli military said it had targeted “terrorist infrastructure” following days of rocket attacks from Gaza on Israel and pledged more strikes if necessary, possibly targeting leaders of the Hamas Islamist militant group.

Hamas threatened to unleash “hell” to avenge the dead, including possible suicide bombings inside Israel.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the Israeli air campaign was “criminal” and called for the international community to intervene.

European Union Foreign Policy Chief Javier Solana called for an immediate ceasefire. “We are very concerned at the events in Gaza. We call for an immediate ceasefire and urge everybody to exert maximum restraint,” his spokesman said.

Egypt also condemned the Israeli raids and said it would keep trying to restore a truce between Israel and Gaza and Arab foreign ministers were set to hold an emergency meeting in Cairo on Sunday or Monday to take a common position on the raids.

ESCALATION THREATENED

At the main Gaza City graduation ceremony, uniformed bodies lay in a pile and the wounded writhed in pain, television pictures showed. Rescuers carried those showing signs of life to cars and ambulances, while others tried to revive the unconscious.

The air strikes followed a decision by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s security cabinet to widen reprisals for cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks following the collapse of a six-month-old, Egyptian-brokered ceasefire a week ago.

Asked if an escalation of the assault could include targeted strikes against Hamas leaders, army spokeswoman Avital Leibovitch said: “Anything belonging to Hamas could be a target. You can interpret that as you like.”

A five-day Israeli offensive in March killed more than 120 people, but Saturday’s death toll would be the highest for Palestinians since their 1980s uprising.

Hamas armed wing spokesman Abu Ubaida said the Islamist group would “teach the enemy a lesson they will never forget,” and brushed aside Israeli threats to target its leaders.

Witnesses reported heavy Israeli bombing along Gaza’s border with Egypt. Palestinians use hundreds of tunnels under the border to bring in everything from goods to weapons, making them prime Israeli targets.

Olmert had warned Hamas, which seized control of the coastal enclave in June 2007, to stop firing rockets.

“I will not hesitate to use Israel’s might to strike Hamas and (Islamic) Jihad,” he told Al Arabiya television, an Arab broadcaster widely watched in Gaza.

Dan Williams in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

See Related: GAZA 2008

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