Middle East Crisis Israel Continues Assault as Europe Struggles to Mediate

Israel continued its ground assault on targets in Gaza on Monday despite international calls for a cease-fire. Aid groups say the humanitarian situation in Gaza is worsening. Europe is failing to mount a unified effort to mediate in the crisis.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rejected international calls for a cease-fire as Israeli troops continued their ground assault on Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip on Monday.

Around 12 Palestinian civilians were killed on Monday, including at least three children and their mother who lost their lives when a shill hit their home in Gaza City, Palestinian medics said.

The Israeli army said "many dozens" of Islamist fighters had been killed since ground troops went in on Saturday in a stated attempt to end rocket fire by Hamas into southern Israel.

Israeli radio reported on Monday that 30 targets in Gaza had been attacked overnight and that Hamas was showing no signs of weakening.

Israeli media said troops were hunting Hamas members in house-to-house combat.

Meanwhile, Hamas appears to be seeking a diplomatic solution itself. According to TV reports, a Hamas delegation is traveling to Egypt. The group has said a cease-fire with Israel would be possible if Israel lifted its blockade of the Gaza Strip and re-opened the border crossings. Egypt has mediated between Israel and Hamas before.

Israeli Welfare Minister Isaac Herzog said Hamas may be looking for a "respectable" way out of the conflict. He told CNN on Sunday that Hamas was under "huge pressure" from the military operation."

Humanitarian Crisis

Aid groups have warned of a serious humanitarian situation in Gaza, where water, food and medical supplies were running short.

Amnesty International said people in Gaza had run out of food. Donatella Rovera, the organization's Middle East expert, told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper: "The general situation has worsened continuously over the past two years, but it's never happened before that people didn't have anything to eat." Supplies of rice, sugar and bread had virtually run out, she said.

The Reuters news agency quoted a Red Crescent doctor in Gaza as saying on Sunday: "Civilians are being killed ... shells are severing people's legs, shrapnel is going into people's bodies and into people's homes, a lot of people are being cut down. Everyone is terrified."

The Israeli government says it has allowed 10,000 tons of humanitarian aid, mainly food and medicine, into Gaza over the past week.

Israel launched its offensive with aerial bombardments on December 27 to stop Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza.

At least 524 Palestinians have been killed since then, of which a quarter were civilians, a UN agency said.

Four Israelis have been killed by rockets and mortars fired into Israel since December 27 and an Israeli soldier was killed in fighting on Sunday. A total of 48 soldiers have been wounded since Israel expanded its operation into a ground invasion on Saturday.

Israel's advances into Gaza have divided the 40-kilometer long coastal territory into two separate zones, and forces have surrounded its largest urban area, the city of Gaza.

Separate European Mediation Efforts

Europe appears to be taking the leading role in mediation efforts as the United States, Israel's closest ally, looks sidelined by the upcoming transfer of the presidency to Barack Obama on January 20.

Obama has stayed silent and his advisers have said that only President George W. Bush would speak for Washington until Obama is inaugurated. Given the gravity of the situation, however, some European commentators have been strongly critical of Obama's silence.

The Bush administration has supported Israel, saying Hamas had to halt rocket fire at Israel for a truce to take shape.

But Europe's attempts at mediation so far have been divided.

Various European envoys are heading to the region, including French President Nicolas Sarkozy as well as a separate group led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. The Czech government took over the rotating presidency of the European Union from France at the start of 2009.

The EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana is traveling to the region as well, as is Tony Blair, the envoy of the powers sponsoring Middle East peace talks. Russia has also dispatched an envoy.

Critics have accused Sarkozy of seeking attention and impeding EU efforts to broker a cease-fire.

Meanwhile on Sunday, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said Israel's offensive against Palestinian militants was destroying hopes for Middle East peace.

"This is a very dangerous moment. This is a moment where all the hopes of the peace process are falling apart in the action that's being taken. So what we need is an immediate cease-fire," Brown said in a BBC radio interview.

On Sunday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter said he was "very concerned about the further escalation of the combat operations. It is pushing hopes for a short-term cessation further into the future."

Steinmeier urged the international community to work togther to help create the pre-conditions for a cease-fire. He said an agreement must "ensure Israel's long-term security. And that doesn't just mean that Hamas must finally stop firing rockets. It also means that the smuggling of weapons into Gaza Strip must be reliably prevented."

The German foreign minister also addressed the humanitarian crisis, saying "I appeal to all sides to facilitate the delivery of urgently needed humanitarian aid to the population."

cro -- with wire reports


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