Ashqelon, Israel // The European Union called yesterday for a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip as Israel bombarded the occupied territory for a fourth straight day, bringing the death toll in the worst bout of violence there since 1967 to a total of 360 Palestinians, with more than 1,500 wounded.
"We want a ceasefire. We want it to be permanent, to be respected, with humanitarian access because there are many victims ... and also a return to the peace process," Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, told reporters. Israeli planes could be seen yesterday striking what Israeli officials described as a series of Hamas-related installations inside Gaza City, while residents inside the occupied territory said bombs had struck the Islamic University of Gaza for a second day as well as several workshops that Israel claims were used by Hamas and other militants to manufacture rockets.
The homes of top militant commanders were also targeted as Hamas and other militant groups continued firing rockets and mortars into neighbouring Israeli towns and military bases. Twelve Palestinians were killed in the Israeli attacks including sisters aged four and 12. The armed wing of Hamas followed through on its threat to send rockets deeper into Israel than ever before, hitting the city of Beersheba 42km inside Israel, medical officials in Israel said.
A masked spokesman for Ezzedine al Qassam Brigades said in televised comments earlier in the day: "We tell the leaders of the enemy - if you continue with your assault, we will hit with our rockets further than the cities we have hit so far If you think that Hamas and al Qassam will be crushed, we will rise up from the rubble," he said. "If you decide to enter the Gaza Strip, the land in Gaza will burn under your feet and it will explode under your soldiers and Gaza children will collect parts of your bodies and your tanks from the streets."
Israeli officials earlier said they would "consider" a French proposal to end the four days of attacks, but a diplomatic settlement appeared still far from reach as Israeli leaders spoke of numerous stages to the military operation. Late yesterday, Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister of France, proposed a 48-hour ceasefire and Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, was to meet his foreign and defence ministers last night to consider the proposal.
However, at a meeting earlier in the day with Shimon Peres, Israel's president, Mr Olmert said the air attacks were "the first of several stages approved by the security cabinet". "The government is giving the military its full backing and the room for manoeuvre to achieve the goal set out by the government," Mr Olmert said. Whether that means Israel will pursue a major ground campaign inside Gaza remains unclear, but more than 150 tanks and armoured vehicles, representing a brigade of mechanised infantry, could be seen just a few kilometres from the Gaza border as the Israeli army builds up its capabilities should it be ordered to move. The Israeli government has also mobilised thousands of reserves over the past few days and buses and vans full of soldiers could be seen throughout the surrounding areas as they reported for duty. Inside Gaza, conditions continued to deteriorate. Hamas fighters have gone to ground to avoid Israeli bombs and the streets were empty of police, with lawlessness and looting breaking out in some key areas as people scramble to protect their lives and possessions. In a few cases, one witness said, some Gazans settled old scores, executing Fatah members who had been held by Hamas and were accused of collaboration or corruption. The International Red Cross said in a statement it had told Israel the main prison in Gaza City was not guarded by Hamas fighters and was filled with accused men waiting for trial. But on Monday, a series of Israeli bombs struck the jail, killing numerous prisoners. As the rest of the prisoners escaped confinement following the strike, witnesses said Hamas members and other tribal militias began taking personal revenge on the now free prisoners with a number of public executions. One Hamas official reached by phone yesterday admitted such attacks took place, but denounced them as "not Hamas policy as we have protected these men from being killed for over one year". At least 10 homemade rockets launched from Gaza struck the nearby town of Sederot yesterday afternoon, sending its exhausted residents scrambling for shelter. According to the Israeli Government Press Office, more than 10,000 rockets and mortars have been fired from Gaza since 2001, including hundreds since Saturday alone, and many of these projectiles have struck in and around the tiny farming village. firstname.lastname@example.org * With additional reporting by Ameera Ahmad in Gaza City and Agence France-Presse