Israeli military planes pounded militant targets including a mosque in Gaza today as Hamas ordered a "day of wrath" against Israel over the killing of a senior commander. Thousands of Israeli security personnel were on alert after Hamas called for "massive marches" following today's prayers, starting off from the Al Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem and from all mosques in the West Bank. "We have mobilised thousands of people for the sector of east Jerusalem and neighbouring villages in order to maintain calm on Friday," the police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
The army also locked down the West Bank for 48 hours, with movement in and out of the territory prohibited except for emergencies and special cases. But Israeli officials said they were allowing dozens of Palestinian holders of foreign passports to flee the fighting in the Gaza Strip. The Israeli army spokesman Peter Lerner said nearly 300 Palestinians are pouring through the Israeli-controlled Erez crossing. He said the Palestinians hold citizenship from a number of other countries, including the US, Russia, Turkey and Kazakhstan. Hamas called a "day of wrath" after an Israeli air strike killed Nizar Rayan, a firebrand hardliner, and several of his wives and children. At least 420 Palestinians have now been killed in Israel's seven-day-old blitz. Rayan is the most senior figure killed by Israel since Abdel Aziz al Rantissi in 2004.
With tanks and troops massed for a threatened ground offensive around Gaza and no ceasefire in sight, the army allowed foreigners to leave the battered enclave. "The [border] crossing was specially reopened to allow foreign nationals to leave the Gaza Strip," an army spokesman said, adding that more than 400 people were expected to cross. The Israeli military pounded the densely populated territory for a seventh day, carrying out some 20 strikes overnight, bombing rocket launching sites and Hamas buildings, the army said.
Among the targets was a mosque in the northern town of Jabaliya that the military said was a "terror hub," used to stockpile weapons and as a Hamas operations centre. The group tried to retaliate for the massive bombardment, sending a handful of rockets slamming into Israeli territory overnight without causing casualties. Israel unleashed its "Operation Cast Lead" on Hamas in Gaza on Saturday in response to persistent rocket fire from the territory, which Hamas has run since June 2007.
Since then, at least 420 Palestinians have been killed and at least 2,180 wounded, according to medics. At least 25 per cent of those killed are civilians, according to a UN count. Gaza militants have fired more than 360 rockets into Israel, killing four people and wounding dozens more. Some of the rockets have reached deeper than ever inside Israeli territory, penetrating some 40km from the Gaza border.
The foreign minister Tzipi Livni reiterated that Israel does not think the time is yet ripe for a truce after talks in Paris yesterday with the French president Nicolas Sarkozy and other French leaders. "The question of whether it's enough or not will be the result of our assessment on a daily basis," she said. Peace moves were also stalled at the UN Security Council even though UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the conflict had become "a dramatic crisis".
The civilian population in Gaza and stability throughout the Middle East "are trapped between the irresponsibility displayed in the indiscriminate rocket attacks by Hamas militants and the disproportionality of the continuing Israeli military operation," Mr Ban said. *AFP