Israeli Strikes Kill 54 in Gaza

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 2, 2008; 2:08 AM

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israeli troops turned heavy firepower on rocket squads bombarding southern Israel Saturday, killing 54 Palestinians in the deadliest day in Gaza since the current round of fighting erupted in 2000.

Two Israeli soldiers were killed and seven were wounded in the clashes, the military said.

The violence took a heavy toll on Gaza civilians. Moderate Palestinian leaders called the killings a "genocide" and threatened to call off peace talks.

"The response to these rockets can't be that harsh and heinous," said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "It is nowadays described as a holocaust."

The spasm of violence came days before Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was to arrive in the region to nudge Israel and Palestinians closer to a peace accord. But the rising tensions threatened to mar her visit.

In Washington, National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe expressed regret for loss of civilian life on both sides but put most of the blame on the Palestinians.

"There is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self-defense," he said in a statement.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting to discuss the fighting. Members emerged early Sunday with a media statement, though not a formal resolution, that urged the two sides to end the violence.

Council experts are to meet Monday to consider a draft resolution circulated by Libya, on behalf of the Palestinians and Arab nations, which would strongly condemn the killing of innocent civilians, including children, and call for "an immediate cessation of all acts of violence, including military attacks and the firing of rockets."

But such resolutions have failed repeatedly in the past because of U.S. and European objections that they are not balanced in their condemnation.

Early Sunday, Israeli aircraft destroyed the office building in Gaza City used by Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, witnesses said. Five people were lightly wounded in the raid.

Also Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak asserted once again that Israel would launch a broad ground operation in Gaza to halt the rocket fire.

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