Combat May Escalate In Gaza, Israel Warns

By Craig Whitlock and Reyham Abdel Kareem
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 11, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 10 -- The war in the Gaza Strip entered its third week Saturday, as weary Palestinians braced themselves for the possibility that the worst was yet to come. Israeli tanks edged closer to Gaza City, and warplanes dropped leaflets warning that an escalation in the fighting was likely.

Thousands of the leaflets fell out of the sky onto the Shati refugee camp, a concrete slum where about 80,000 people live along the Mediterranean Sea. The written warnings were clear: Don't help Hamas, and evacuate your homes if there are any "terrorist elements" nearby.

But with Hamas fighters and supporters scattered everywhere in Gaza, civilians in the Shati camp wondered where they were supposed to go. "They are shelling everywhere -- it makes no difference to them whether people are civilians or militants," said Mahmoud Shahin, 60.

Intense firefights had already forced Shahin and his family to abandon their home north of Gaza City and seek refuge with relatives in the Shati camp. He said dogs were eating corpses in the streets of his old neighborhood. Gazans have seen firsthand the power of Israel's military many times over the years, he said. "But this time, it's different. It's awful. It's like a monster attack."

Many Gazans also reported receiving a surge in telephone calls overnight from Israeli intelligence officers, warning them of planned operations in their districts but also attempting to pump them for information. Other callers purported to be concerned Arabs from other countries, such as Libya and Algeria.

The Israeli military has mobilized tens of thousands of reserve soldiers in the past week. Government leaders have said they are debating whether to expand the war by sending troops into Gaza City and the territory's densely packed refugee camps, where the leadership of Hamas and many fighters are based.

On Saturday, Israeli military officials said they bombed about 60 targets, while Hamas launched about 15 rockets into southern Israel, the fewest since the war began. One rocket struck the city of Ashkelon, 12 miles north of Gaza, wounding several people.

Israeli leaders have said they will not withdraw from Gaza until they are confident Hamas will no longer be able to attack Israeli towns with the crude rockets or other missiles.

Eight Palestinians were killed Saturday when a shell crashed outside a home in the Jabalya refugee camp, Gazan medical officials said. The Israeli military denied responsibility, saying its forces were not in that area.

More than 840 Palestinians have been killed since Israel began the military offensive Dec. 27, according to health officials in Gaza. Thirteen Israelis have died, including three civilians struck by rocket fire and 10 soldiers.

Diplomats struggled to jump-start peace talks Saturday, a day after both Israel and Hamas rejected a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a cease-fire.

In Cairo, Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, pressed Israeli and Hamas officials to sign on to the French-Egyptian proposal and warned of catastrophic consequences if the fighting escalated.

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