x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Fighting is house to house in Gaza

Leaders of both sides increase their rhetoric of violence despite growing calls for Hamas and Israel to end conflict.

Palestinians walk past a destroyed mosque in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip.
Palestinians walk past a destroyed mosque in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip.

On the Gaza border // Israeli forces continued their assault on the Gaza Strip yesterday, engaging in fierce house-to-house battles around key spots in northern towns often used to fire rockets into southern Israel, while both European and Arab officials repeated calls for an immediate ceasefire. But despite calls by both Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, and Egyptian officials for Hamas and Israel to end the conflict, which entered its tenth day yesterday, leaders of both sides increased their rhetoric of violence.

"Hamas has so far sustained a very heavy blow from us, but we have yet to achieve our objective and therefore the operation continues," said Ehud Barak, the Israeli defence minister. In response, Mahmoud Zahar, a top militant official, said the Hamas military wing was headed for "victory" against Israeli forces. "The Zionists have legitimised the killing of their children by killing our children.

"They have legitimised the killing of their people all over the world by killing our people," Mr Zahar said in a grainy video broadcast on Hamas TV. "Crush your enemy," he urged viewers. In describing the objectives of the operation - which started with an air campaign that preceded a ground invasion that began on Saturday night - Mr Barak said the protection of southern Israeli towns remains the ultimate goal.

Hamas and its militant allies inside Gaza have fired more than 10,000 homemade rockets into southern Israel since 2000, and after a six-month ceasefire expired last month, resumed the attacks, which sparked the Israeli operation. "The fundamental objective is to change the reality of security for the south," Mr Barak said. "We are striving for a new reality in which there won't be activity from Gaza against Israeli civilians or our soldiers, a situation which will dramatically change the state of smuggling and in which quiet will prevail in the south."

Israeli military officials say that rockets manufactured in Iran and China are smuggled into Gaza through tunnels from Egypt. Five Israelis have been killed by rocket fire since the start of the conflict. At least 575 Palestinians have been killed and 2,700 wounded, according to the latest figures available from Palestinian medics inside Gaza. One Israeli soldier and an unknown number of Hamas fighters have died since the ground invasion began.

Israel dismissed European proposals to have international observers in the Gaza Strip after any ceasefire, insisting instead that what is needed is equipment and teams to help search out and destroy the tunnels, which Hamas could use to rearm. The US state department said yesterday the Bush administration is pressing for a ceasefire that would address the issue of the tunnels, halting Hamas rocket fire from Gaza and reopening border crossing points with Israel.

As Egyptian officials demanded that Hamas implement a unilateral ceasefire of the rocket attacks, the militant group said yesterday it would send a delegation to Cairo to discuss diplomatic initiatives. It would be the first effort by the group in the last 10 days to openly talk to outside mediators. Mr Sarkozy was due to arrive in Israel yesterday to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials after a similar effort failed to end the conflict last week. Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, was also due to meet Tzipi Livni, the Israeli foreign minister, last night.

Despite increasing diplomatic pressure to end the operation, Israeli forces continued to aggressively push further into much of the northern Gaza Strip. Witnesses said that yesterday afternoon, Israeli elite units had seized a series of high-rise apartment buildings on the outskirts of Gaza City, the first time that troops had pushed into the dense urban area, where Hamas and other militant fighters hope to negate Israel's technological advantages in close-quarter combat.

Heavy fighting was also reported around the farming villages of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahiya, which are often used to launch rockets by Gaza-based militants. At least 25 rockets were fired into Israel yesterday, including multiple strikes in Ashkelon, the largest city in southern Israel. No casualties were reported in those strikes. Inside the areas controlled by Israeli forces, Gazans reported occasionally heavy fighting as commando units pursued what Israeli officials called "high-value targets" that they claim are militant workshops, positions and homes. Dozens have been arrested in pursuit of information about the whereabouts of weapons and rockets caches, as well as militants and their leaders, according to witnesses.

Residents in Rafah, southern Gaza's largest city, said Israeli tanks had withdrawn from the abandoned airport on the outskirts of the city after occupying it on Saturday night. The Israelis have said they pursued a series of operations against tunnels used to smuggle weapons and consumer goods into the coastal strip, which has been under effective blockade since the 2007 eviction of the ruling Fatah party, by Hamas fighters.

Although scores of lorries loaded with humanitarian and medical aid have been allowed to enter the Strip during the operation, residents in every city across Gaza report extremely grave shortages in basic staples. With more than 1.5 million residents, 90 per cent of which receive monthly UN food rations, the Gaza Strip is reliant on massive amounts of food aid even without a crisis under way. Residents and aid workers say that with movement nearly impossible throughout the areas of military operations, what little aid is available cannot be safely moved to the people who need it. And fuel oil and electricity has all but disappeared because fuel shipments have halted and the electrical grid has been badly damaged in the fighting.

"One million people are without electricity. Crucially, the hospitals in Gaza are running on emergency generators. This in my book amounts to a humanitarian crisis," Christopher Gunness, an aid worker, told the BBC. mprothero@thenational.ae