Israeli Warplanes Pound Gaza

Death toll rises as Israel assaults targets in Hamas-run Gaza Strip, including a security compound and a group of smugglers' tunnels.
By Samuel Sockol
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 28, 2008

JERUSALEM, Dec. 28 -- Israeli warplanes pounded Hamas installations across the Gaza Strip on Saturday and early Sunday in retaliation for rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel. At least 225 Palestinians were killed and more than 400 wounded, Palestinian health officials reported, one of the highest daily death tolls in decades of conflict.

After the strikes, which created panic across the strip, filled hospitals with the injured and sent black clouds billowing into the sky, Palestinians launched dozens of rockets into southern Israel, killing a man in the town of Netivot and wounding at least four.

The violence followed the expiration of a cease-fire this month. The Israeli cabinet approved what was dubbed Operation Solid Lead in a meeting Wednesday. The assault occurred at a time of political uncertainty in Israel, with elections scheduled for February to choose a successor to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who is stepping down in the wake of corruption charges. Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu, who leads in recent polls, has accused the government, led by the Labor Party, and the centrist Kadima party, led by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, of not doing enough to act against Hamas.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who leads Labor, said, "There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight."

Hamas said when the cease-fire ended Dec. 19 that it wanted Israel to ease the cordon around the Gaza Strip, which had been imposed to put pressure on Hamas, an Islamist movement committed to Israel's destruction. Hamas said the humanitarian and economic costs of the embargo were deepening. But Israeli officials said Hamas had not kept its pledge to bring the rocket fire to a halt.

Over the past week, the number of rockets and mortar shells being fired into southern Israel increased dramatically, with more than 60 fired Wednesday and more than 80 Thursday. The rise has sown fear in Israeli towns, but there had been no fatalities among Israelis during the week until Saturday.

Israeli air force F-16 warplanes hit Hamas security installations, killing officials, policemen and bystanders, according to witnesses and officials in Gaza and Israel. Many people were reported still trapped under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Israel destroyed Hamas security structures in Gaza City, Khan Younis and Rafah, they said. The installations hit included a police academy, a coast guard facility and security services, including a jail holding opponents of Hamas.

One of those reportedly killed was Ismail Jumaah, a senior Hamas official and head of one of the local security forces.

On Sunday, Israeli bombs destroyed a mosque, Palestinian officials told the Associated Press. The military called the building a "base for terrorist activities."

The al-Aqsa television station used by Hamas was also struck, with its studio building destroyed. The station used a mobile unit to remain on the air.

Livni warned that Hamas's political leaders could soon be targeted. "Nobody is immune," the AP quoted her as saying.

The Israeli military said in a statement that "this operation will be continued, expanded and intensified as much as will be required." It was not clear whether the air attacks would be followed by a ground incursion in the seaside enclave, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, which has been ruled by Hamas for 18 months.

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