GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Hamas challenged and tamed middle easts mightiest army, thinking Israel will withdraw by ceasefire and hamas will claim victory, as it happend with Israel lebanon war, but their plan bounced back. Israeli forces pounded dozens of targets and edged closer to Gaza City on Saturday while southern Israel was largely spared militant rocket fire in one of its quietest nights in the two-week offensive against Hamas.
The Israeli military said more than 15 militans were killed in heavy fighting Saturday with its ground forces inside Gaza. Its aircraft attacked more than 40 targets throughout Gaza, striking 10 rocket-launching sites, weapons-storage facilities, smuggling tunnels, an anti-aircraft missile launcher and gunmen. Flames and smoke could be seen rising into the sky over Gaza City.
Palestinian hospital officials confirmed only four deaths, but fighting has hindered paramedics from collecting bodies and treating the wounded.
The fighting raged after both Israel and Hamas ignored a U.N. resolution calling for an immediate and durable cease-fire that would lead to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. Israel has dismissed the Security Council resolution passed Thursday as impractical, while Hamas, whose government in Gaza is not recognized internationally, is angry it was not consulted about the diplomatic efforts.
Some of the heaviest fighting Saturday occurred on the strategic coastal road north of Gaza City, Palestinian security officials said. Israeli forces moved to within about 1 mile of the city before pulling back slightly.
While Israel has largely taken control of the road, militants continue to operate from hidden positions in the area. The road is often used to fire rockets into Israel or attack Israeli navy boats off the Mediterranean coast.
Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. A week later, ground troops moved in, with artillery and tank fire that has contributed to a surge in civilian casualties.
Palestinian medical officials say more than 800 Palestinians have been killed, roughly half of them civilians. Thirteen Israelis have been killed — four of them by militant rockets, the rest in battle in Gaza.
In a possible sign of progress for the military, no rockets were fired into Israel overnight, a sharp drop from the dozens of projectiles that were launched in the early days of the offensive.
Israeli military officials cautioned against reading too much into the lull, and by Saturday morning, several rockets had landed in uninhabited areas of southern Israel.
The offensive has caused extensive damage throughout Gaza, fueling fears of an impending humanitarian crisis. Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, said roughly two-thirds of Gaza\’s 1.4 million people are without electricity, and half don\’t have running water.
He said the U.N. planned to distribute food and medicine from its existing supplies on Saturday. But he said a halt on aid shipments into Gaza through Israel-controlled border crossings — imposed Thursday after a U.N. truck driver was shot and killed by Israel — remained in effect. It was unclear when the deliveries will resume.
\”As each day goes by, and for each moment that the cease-fire demanded by the Security Council is not observed, the crisis continues,\” he said.
In Israel\’s first official response to the U.N. resolution, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert\’s office said more Hamas rockets fired Friday \”only prove that the U.N.\’s decision is not practical and will not be kept in practice by the Palestinian murder organizations.\”
Senior Cabinet ministers issued a statement saying the military offensive would continue until rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled territory ends. Hamas, which receives backing from Iran and Syria, has improved its capabilities to the point that roughly one-eighth of Israel\’s 7 million citizens now live in rocket range.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon spoke with Olmert by phone and Friday and told the prime minister that he was disappointed the violence was continuing in disregard of the resolution, according to Ban\’s office.
Hamas also dismissed the resolution, and spokesmen expressed annoyance they were not consulted.
\”Nobody consulted Hamas or talked to Hamas. Nobody put Hamas in the picture and yet Hamas is required to accept it. This is unacceptable,\” Mohammed Nazzal, a senior Hamas official based in Syria, told Al-Arabiya television.
Israel says any cease-fire must include assurances that Hamas will halt attacks and end the smuggling of weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border.
Hamas has said it won\’t accept any cease-fire deal that does not include the full opening of Gaza\’s border crossings. The U.N. resolution emphasized the need to open all crossings, which Israel and Egypt have kept sealed since Hamas militants forcibly seized control of the territory 18 months ago.
Israeli leaders oppose that step because it would allow Hamas to strengthen its hold on Gaza.
The foreign minister in the Western-backed government of President Mahmoud Abbas, which was driven out of Gaza by the rival Hamas in 2007, criticized both Israel and Hamas for not accepting the demand for a halt to fighting.
\”Both have responded to the resolution in the same way, in total disrespect,\” Riad Malki said at U.N. headquarters in New York. He said the Security Council should enforce its resolution, perhaps by levying sanctions.
The rising civilian death toll has drawn heavy criticism of Israel from international aid groups and triggered anger throughout the Islamic world and elsewhere. There have been daily protests in the Middle East and in Europe, where there also has been a rise in anti-Semitic attacks.
In Washington, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said it is difficult to protect civilians in a place as densely populated as Gaza — an area just 25 miles long and roughly six miles wide.
\”It\’s also an area in which Hamas participates in activities like human shields and using buildings that are not designated as military buildings to hide their fighters,\” she told reporters.
A six-month truce unraveled in November, and Israeli officials have said that lull allowed Hamas to bring in more advanced weaponry through hundreds of smuggling tunnels snaking beneath the Gaza border from Egypt\’s Sinai Desert.
Seven Hamas officials crossed into Egypt on Friday through the Gaza border crossing at Rafah, on their way to Cairo for Egyptian-hosted negotiations on a truce with Israel.
The talks were expected to begin sometime Saturday following the arrival of a Hamas delegation from Syria, including politburo members Mohammed Nasr and Imad al-Alami.
Despite the cool reception to the Security Council vote, the foreign ministers of Germany and Spain planned to visit the region to promote the U.N. resolution.
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