GAZA // Israeli warplanes pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip for a third consecutive day today and the Jewish state prepared to launch a possible invasion after killing 307 Palestinians in the air raids. Israel, which stepped up the air strikes after dark yesterday, said it launched the campaign on Saturday in response to almost daily rocket and mortar fire that intensified after the Hamas group ended a six-month ceasefire a week ago.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, said the military action 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 the military spokesman Avi Benayahu. Israeli tanks were deployed on Gaza's edge, poised to enter the densely populated coastal enclave of 1.5 million Palestinians. Mr Olmert's cabinet approved a call-up of 6,500 reservists, a government official said.
Hamas remained defiant and the group's spokesman Fawzi Barhoum urged Palestinian groups to use "all available means, including martyrdom operations" - a reference to suicide bombings in Israel. World oil prices rose as much as $2 (Dh7) to nearly $40 a barrel today as analysts said the conflict between Israel and Hamas had reminded traders of the geopolitical risk to crude supplies from the Middle East. The UN Security Council called for a halt to the violence, but the US president George W Bush's administration, in its final weeks in office, has put the onus on Hamas to renew the truce.
The Israeli offensive enraged Arabs across the Middle East, where protesters burned Israeli and US flags to press for a stronger response from their leaders to the attack on Gaza. Israel, whose politicians have been under pressure to act over the rocket and mortar attacks ahead of a Feb 10 election, was feeling little international pressure to halt its offensive, said an Israeli official, who declined to be named.
The foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who hopes to become prime minister after the February election, appeared to rule out a large-scale invasion to restore Israeli control of the blockaded territory, once dotted with Jewish settlements. "Our goal is not to reoccupy Gaza Strip," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press" programme. Asked on Fox News if Israel was out to topple Gaza's Hamas rulers, Ms Livni said: "Not now."
Broadening their targets to include the Hamas government, Israeli warplanes bombed the Interior Ministry today, Palestinian sources said. No immediate word was available on whether there were any casualties. Hamas said one Israeli air strike destroyed a laboratory building at the Islamic University in Gaza, a major cultural symbol. The Israeli army said the laboratory had been used by Hamas to develop weapons and explosives. Hamas said 180 of its members had been killed and that the rest of the more than 300 dead included civilians, among them 16 women and some children. Ms Livni said Israel was targeting militants but "unfortunately in a war...sometimes also civilians pay the price".
The International Red Cross said hospitals in the Gaza Strip were overwhelmed and unable to cope with the casualties. Keeping up pressure on Hamas after bombing runs that turned Saturday into one of the bloodiest days for Palestinians in 60 years of conflict, Israeli aircraft flattened the group's main security compound in Gaza, killing at least four security men. *Reuters