Israeli forces launched a devastating onslaught in northern Gaza, yesterday, killing at least 60 Palestinians, among them nine children, as pressure mounts on the government for a full-scale invasion.Two Israeli soldiers died and seven were injured in the incursion, which involves a regiment of about 2,000 troops and is the biggest since Israel withdrew all its forces from the territory in 2005.
The attack was an attempt to stop the hail of rockets fired by Hamas militants at Israeli cities. About 140 rockets have been fired since fighting flared up on Wednesday, including more than 50 yesterday.
Israeli troops targeted the crowded Jabaliya refugee camp in the hunt for militants. Tanks, supported by helicopters, moved into the area just after midnight and by noon, troops had pushed nearly two miles into Gaza.
At least three women and nine children, ranging in age from 13 months to 17 years, were reported to be among the dead. In Gaza’s main Shifa hospital, a toddler screamed as doctors tried to treat her for burns. “Uncle, I don’t want to die. I want my dad,” she cried. The girl was injured after Israel attacked a house which the army claimed had been used to store and make weapons.
A mother preparing breakfast for her children was killed when she was hit by gunfire, relatives and medical workers said. Four more civilians died when a missile struck a crowd of Palestinians. Hospital officials said that two dead children remain unidentified in hospital.
Among those killed were a 16-year-old girl and her 14-year-old brother, who died after artillery attacks on Jabaliya camp. Another 16-year-old girl was killed and her baby brother was seriously injured while watching television, and two sisters died when their kitchen roof collapsed.
Abu Alaa, 40, a resident of Jabaliya, said: “We are in the middle of a total war. We hear the rockets and the explosions everywhere. We cannot leave our homes. They’re shooting at everything that moves.” Sami Ali Oush, 25, a student who lives in Jabaliya, said: “We have many injured, but the ambulances cannot reach them because the Israeli soldiers are everywhere.”
In Ramallah, on the West Bank, about 300 Palestinians from the main political factions marched through the streets, carrying pictures of children killed by the Israeli attacks. Senior Palestinian negotiators said peace talks with Israel could not continue.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, who is from the Fatah party, called for “international protection for the Palestinian people”. He said: “It is unthinkable that Israel’s reaction to Palestinian rocket attacks, which we condemn, can be so terrible and frightening.”
The Israeli army said the raid was a “routine incursion” that did not represent a change in policy. The possibility of a bigger invasion is to be discussed at an Israeli cabinet meeting today, but the country’s vice premier, Haim Ramon, said that it did not plan to retake Gaza. He said: “We need to act with all our might, but without taking steps that will hurt us more than help us, by which I mean re-occupying Gaza.”
However, pressure is also growing inside Israel to negotiate with Hamas for a ceasefire, a tactic so far shunned by Israeli leaders. John Ging, a senior United Nations official in Gaza, appealed to world leaders last night to try to stop the fighting. He said: “Killing Palestinian women and children will not bring security to the people of Israel.”
Washington urged Israel to “consider the consequences” of the military action. Both Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, and Javier Solana, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, are to visit the region this week to try to push peace talks forward, though yesterday’s violence cast doubt over the talks.
The latest round of fighting has now claimed more than 80 lives, including at least 30 civilians. The violence escalated with an Israeli air strike on Wednesday that killed five senior Hamas militants. This was followed by a barrage of rockets from Gaza.