By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 5, 2009
JERUSALEM, Jan. 4 -- Israeli ground forces backed by air and naval power pushed deeper into the Gaza Strip on Sunday, engaging in fierce combat with Hamas fighters as they attempted to encircle the coastal region's largest city.
The second day of Israel's ground assault drew fresh international warnings that Gaza's humanitarian crisis would worsen in the coming days. The Palestinian death toll rose to roughly 507, with more than 2,000 wounded, including many civilians, according to United Nations and Palestinian health officials.
An Israeli soldier was fatally wounded in Gaza on Sunday; three Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed by Hamas rocket and mortar fire inside Israel during the nine days of fighting. Israel insists its offensive is only targeting Hamas, the armed Islamist group that controls Gaza, and says the strip's 1.5 million residents do not face a humanitarian crisis.
"Too many civilians have already died. Women and children and babies are dying, and it has to stop, as the U.N. secretary general has said," said Christopher Gunness, a U.N. spokesman. "We in the U.N., who have 9,000 or 10,000 workers on the ground, are in a much better situation to determine whether there is a humanitarian crisis, which there is, than Israel, which views Gaza through the lens of high-altitude bombers."
Despite growing international criticism, the United States on Sunday blocked the passage of a U.N. Security Council statement urging an immediate cease-fire in Gaza. In Washington, meanwhile, Vice President Cheney said Sunday that Israel did not seek U.S. approval before sending ground troops into Gaza.
"They didn't seek clearance or approval from us, certainly. They have said, now, for a period of months . . . [that] if the rocketing didn't stop, they felt they had no choice but to take action," Cheney said on CBS's "Face the Nation," adding that Israeli leaders "haven't told me exactly what they planned to do or when they plan to do it."
Israeli tanks and infantry units punched into areas north and south of Gaza City, effectively dividing the strip in two, and by Sunday night were also operating just east of the city, according to witnesses and Israeli military officials. Israeli forces seized control of open areas that Israeli military officials say Hamas uses to launch rockets into southern Israel. More than 500 rockets and mortar shells have landed in southern Israel over the nine days of fighting.
A senior Israeli military officer, speaking to foreign journalists in a conference call, said Israel was prepared to control those areas as long as needed to stop the rocket fire. "We are not speaking about recapturing the Gaza Strip," said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "This is not our objective. If we have to hold those areas, to stop the rockets, we will do this."
Israel so far has concentrated its ground forces in the northern half of the strip, where hundreds of thousands of people live in a mix of refugee camps, crowded high-rise neighborhoods and agricultural villages. Meanwhile, Israeli jets and naval ships are bombarding the southern half of the strip, striking tunnels used to bring in weapons from the Egyptian Sinai and targeting Hamas leaders for assassination.
With a little more than a month until Israel holds national elections, pressure has been building for Israeli leaders to use the ground operation not just to weaken Hamas but to paralyze it permanently. Hamas triumphed in parliamentary elections in January 2006, winning day-to-day control of the Palestinian Authority. Amid rising political tension, Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007 from rival Fatah forces, causing a severe split in the Palestinian national movement. Israel has restricted food, medicine and other supplies to the strip in an attempt to end Hamas rocket attacks. In its founding charter, Hamas calls for Israel's destruction.
"This morning I can look every one of you in the eyes and say the government did everything before deciding to go ahead with the operation," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet Sunday, in his first public comments on the ground offensive. "This operation was unavoidable."
Israeli troops appeared to be drawing closer Sunday to engaging Hamas in densely populated urban areas that are the movement's historic strongholds. The Israeli soldier killed early Sunday afternoon was involved in "a heavy exchange of fire" during a battle close to the Jabalya refugee camp. Another Israeli soldier was severely wounded in the same incident, an Israeli military spokesman said.
It was Israel's first fatality of the ground invasion, which began Saturday night and followed a week-long air assault on Gaza. Eighteen other Israeli soldiers were lightly wounded Sunday.
The Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba had admitted 15 soldiers by midday Sunday, said Shlomi Codish, the deputy director general. Three were severely wounded. All had shrapnel wounds from a mortar shell, he said.
One of the wounded soldiers, who gave his first name as Yakov, left the hospital Sunday afternoon in a wheelchair, with a jagged red line and a row of black stitches running across his throat. He had been wounded around midnight the previous evening, just hours after troops entered Gaza.
"A mortar landed right in the middle of my platoon," he said. The shrapnel had missed his windpipe by less than an inch.
The Israeli military said "a few dozens of Hamas" fighters had been hit since the ground offensive began. Hamas remained defiant. Ismail Radwan, a Hamas leader, addressed Israeli soldiers Sunday in a radio and television broadcast.
"Gaza will not be a picnic," he said. "Gaza will be a graveyard for you."
Israeli jets struck 40 targets, including tunnels and weapons storage facilities, the Israeli military said. The military has prevented foreign journalists from entering the Gaza Strip, making it difficult to verify reports.
Hamas on Sunday said it captured two Israeli soldiers during the operation and was holding them hostage, according to a Hamas radio and television broadcast. But a senior Israeli military official denied the report early Sunday.
"As far as we know, it's not true," said the official, who briefed foreign journalists on the condition of anonymity.
The senior Israeli military official cautioned that the ground offensive would not end "in hours or a few days." He described the terrain as "challenging" and "well prepared by Hamas" during the six-month cease-fire with Israel.
"There are a lot of obstacles on the ground. Hamas is using methods that were imported from Iran and Hezbollah," he said, referring to the Lebanese Shiite militia that Israel fought to a standoff in the summer of 2006. Those methods, he added, were "guerrilla concepts and tactics, exploiting both open areas and those of highest density of population." The official also sought to play down Israeli expectations, saying that the military does not expect to "zero-ize" the number of rockets landing in Israel, but rather to decrease the number. On Sunday, roughly 40 rockets and mortar shells landed in and around the Israeli border towns of Ashkelon, Sderot, Netivot, Ashdod and Ofakim. One missile struck a house in Sderot, injuring a woman, the Israeli military said.
Inside Gaza, reports from local journalists and eyewitnesses described scenes of fear, destruction and worsening food shortages. Many Gazans barricaded themselves in their homes, while others risked fleeing on the streets. More than 3,000 people have been displaced by the conflict and have sought haven in U.N. shelters.
In Gaza City, wounded Palestinians streamed into Shifa Hospital, including women and children, according to Palestinian health officials. Ambulances, sirens blaring, sped through the streets. People piled the injured into cars or carried them in their arms into the hospital.
Gunness, the spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, said fuel shortages are worsening and hospitals are running on emergency generators. Electricity is growing scarce. About 250,000 people are without drinking water, he said, and he predicted that wheat flour would run out in three days.
"Gaza has been bifurcated by this offensive. We can't get food up to the north," Gunness said. "In anyone's book, this is a humanitarian crisis."
Protests against the Israeli military operation occurred Sunday in several European countries. In Greece, demonstrators set fire to banks, assaulted police with rocks and hurled shoes at the Israeli Embassy. From Paris to Poland, tens of thousands of protesters called for an end to the Israeli offensive.
In the Muslim world, thousands marched in Beirut and in Ankara, Turkey, and Amman, Jordan. Many demonstrators accused Arab governments of not doing enough to support the Palestinians. Under pressure from its citizens, the leaders of Egypt and Jordan, the only two Arab nations to sign peace treaties with Israel, condemned the ground assault.
"The violence has to stop," said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union's external relations commissioner.
Correspondents Craig Whitlock in Jerusalem and Griff Witte in Sderot, Israel, contributed to this report.