Palestinians look at a destroyed mosque after
an Israeli air strike in Jabalya refugee camp
in the northern Gaza Strip
BY NIDAL al-MUGHRABI
GAZA – Israeli aircraft destroyed a bastion of Hamas’s rule over the Gaza Strip on Monday, the third day of an offensive that has killed more than 300 Palestinians in the deadliest violence in the territory in decades.
“We have an all-out war against Hamas and its kind,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said in parliament, using a term he has employed in the past to describe a long-term struggle against Israel’s Islamist enemies.
Broadening their targets to include the Hamas government in the Gaza Strip, Israeli warplanes bombed the Interior Ministry, which supervises 13,000 members of the group’s security forces. The building had been evacuated and there were no casualties.
Hamas, an Islamist movement, defied the Israeli assaults, the fiercest in the coastal enclave since the 1967 Middle East war. Its forces fired a rocket salvo into the Israeli city of Ashkelon, killing one person, the second such fatality since Israeli bombing began on Saturday.
Israel has said the offensive is aimed at halting cross-border rocket attacks that intensified after a six-month, Egyptian-brokered ceasefire with Hamas expired on December 19.
Palestinian medical officials put the Gaza death toll at 310, most of them members of Hamas which took over the Gaza Strip in June 2007.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency said at least 57 of the dead were civilians. It based the figure, which an UNRWA spokesman called “conservative,” on visits by agency officials to hospitals and medical centers.
Israel declared areas around the Gaza Strip a “closed military zone,” citing the risk from Palestinian rockets, and ordering out journalists observing a buildup of armored forces preparing for a possible ground invasion of the territory.
“You’ve got to go,” an army spokesman told a Reuters correspondent after she appealed a military police directive to leave.
Excluding the press could help Israel keep under wraps its preparations for a Gaza incursion following three days of air strikes that have caused chaos, turned some buildings to rubble and left hospitals struggling to cope.
Most Gazans in the densely populated enclave stayed at home, in rooms away from windows that could shatter in blasts from air strikes on Hamas facilities. Residents of southern Israel ran for shelter at the sound of alarms heralding incoming rockets.
“At no time could we leave the kids unattended. They trembled every time there was a bombing, day and night, and all of us had almost no sleep,” said Umm Hassan, a mother of seven.
An Israeli air raid flattened a building in the heart of a residential neighborhood in Gaza, sending a cloud of dust into the air, shaking nearby dwellings and wounding five people. It was not immediately clear why the structure, which was apparently empty, was targeted.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the military action, launched after a six-month ceasefire expired, would go on until the population in southern Israel “no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages.”
Israeli aircraft also destroyed a laboratory building at the Islamic University, an institution that is a significant cultural symbol in Gaza.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the offensive would go on until the population in southern Israel “no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages.”
“(The operation could) take many days,” said military spokesman Avi Benayahu.
In what it called a “terrorist” attack, the Israeli army said a Palestinian stabbed three Israelis in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba in the West Bank before he was shot by a passer-by and arrested. One of the wounded Israelis was in a serious condition.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum has urged Palestinian groups to use “all available means” against Israel, including martyrdom operations” — a reference to suicide bombings in a Palestinian uprising that erupted in 2000 but has since died down.
The Gaza operation and civilian casualties have enraged Arabs across the Middle East. Protesters burned Israeli and U.S. flags in several places to press for a stronger response from their leaders.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Israel was targeting militants but “unfortunately in a war … sometimes also civilians pay the price.” Chief Palestinian negotiator Ahmed Qurie said U.S.-backed peace talks with Israel have been put on hold, citing the Gaza offensive. The negotiations over the past year have achieved little visible progress.
The U.N. Security Council called for a halt to the violence, but U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, in its final weeks in office, has put the onus on Hamas to renew the truce.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit said during a visit to Turkey that “Israel must stop its killing operations against Palestinians.” He called for an immediate ceasefire.
See Related: GAZA 2008