Israelis Push to Edge of Gaza City

Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as diplomats in Cairo suggest tentative progress in their efforts to reach a cease-fire.
By Griff Witte
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, January 12, 2009

JERUSALEM, Jan. 11 -- Israeli troops pushed deep into the Gaza Strip's most populated area Sunday, producing some of the fiercest fighting of the 16-day war against Hamas as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that Israel is "close" to achieving its goals but is not there yet.

The Israeli advance marked a possible precursor to a new phase of the conflict, in which Israeli forces engage Hamas and its allies in sustained urban combat. Despite international pressure to halt the fighting, which has wreaked havoc for Gaza's 1.5 million people, it could well grow more intense. Israel announced for the first time Sunday night that reservists had joined the fight and were operating in Gaza.

The Israeli military has been warning for days that it would soon begin a "third phase" of its offensive in Gaza, after a week of air raids and another week of ground operations by regular-duty forces. Tens of thousands of Israeli reservists had been called up and massed along the border, ready to support a possible push into Gaza's major population centers, where Hamas leaders are believed to be hiding.

The Israeli military said Sunday night that reservists had gone into Gaza several days ago, though the number was relatively small, according to an Israel Defense Forces spokeswoman, Maj. Avital Leibovich. Thousands of active-duty soldiers are already operating in the strip.

As of late Sunday night, the troops -- both active-duty and reserve -- remained in the open areas on the fringes of Gaza's cities and refugee camps. But in the pre-dawn hours Sunday morning, tanks backed by helicopter gunships had made their furthest push yet into the Gaza City area, home to 400,000 people. Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed that they ambushed the advancing troops in a Gaza City suburb, Sheikh Ajleen, prompting a pitched battle that ended in the early afternoon.

In the fighting, 27 Palestinians were killed, according to medical officials in Gaza. There was no report of Israeli casualties. The overall Palestinian death toll rose to 876 on Sunday, the medical officials said, as many as half of whom were civilians. Thirteen Israelis have been killed since the war began Dec. 27.

While the tanks later retreated, their foray into the outskirts of Gaza City could be a prelude to the sort of urban warfare that would mark any Israeli advance into the sprawling, densely packed cities and refugee camps where most Gazans live.

"We have to push Hamas into the corner," said Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general who served as the military's chief of research and assessment. "The way to do that is to control the ground, and to control the ground we have to go in with more forces."

Such a mission would be high-risk and would probably elevate the casualty toll on both sides. But pressure has been building in Israel for the military to capitalize on its success and destroy what remains of Hamas authority in Gaza. Until now, Olmert has said that that is not his goal; he instead has defined a more limited objective of stopping or greatly reducing Hamas rocket fire.

"Israel is getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself," Olmert told his cabinet during their weekly meeting Sunday. "But patience, determination and effort are still needed to realize these goals in a manner that will change the security situation in the south."

According to Israeli news reports, Olmert and his two top deputies, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, disagree over how the war should end, and the three have argued in recent days over whether Israel should seek a cease-fire with Hamas or unilaterally declare victory. With Israeli elections a month away, the stakes in the war are high for both Livni and Barak, who are vying to succeed Olmert.

Despite Israel's relentless bombardment of Hamas-affiliated targets, rockets continued to fly out of Gaza on Sunday, with more than 20 launched into Israel. Several landed in the city of Beersheba, 25 miles away, although no major injuries were reported.

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