12/29/2008 10:41 AM

No End in Sight for Fighting

Israeli Jets Pound Gaza for Third Day

Israel's air force bombed Hamas sites in Gaza for the third day on Monday in retaliation for rocket attacks on Israel. The Palestinians claim more than 300 people have been killed in the Israeli air raids. European Union officials say it's an unacceptable toll and have called for an immediate cease-fire.

Israeli warplanes attacked the Gaza Strip for a third consecutive day on Monday and Israeli tanks were deployed on the edge of the coastal enclave ruled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas.

More than 300 people have been killed and over 1,000 wounded in the aerial bombing raids launched by Israel on Saturday in response to rocket and mortar fire that intensified after Hamas ended a six-month cease-fire a week ago.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the military action would go on until the population in southern Israel "no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages," Reuters reported.

"(The operation could) take many days," said military spokesman Avi Benayahu.

The government on Sunday approved the call-up of 6,500 reservists and threatened to launch a ground offensive if the rockets continue to be fired.

Israeli radio reported that the air force flew 40 raids on Hamas-held targets during Sunday night and had hit a weapons arsenal.

Interior Ministry, University Targeted

Eyewitnesses reported four large detonations. The Interior Ministry and the Islamic University, seen as a bastion of Hamas, were also attacked. An Israeli army spokesman said the university campus had been used to develop rockets, explosives and electronic equipment for Hamas militants. The university was a meeting place for Hamas activists and also served as a hiding place for weapons, the army spokesman said.

Israeli media reported that a building close to the home of former Prime Minister Ismail Hanija had also been hit. Hanija wasn't home, he's in hiding like other Hamas leaders.

According to the United Nations, most of the dead are policemen, and at least 20 children, nine women and a further 60 civilians have also been killed.

Most of the casualties occurred within the first few minutes of the air raids on Saturday, making that day the bloodiest for Palestinians in 60 years of Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The UN expects the number of casualties to rise as rescuers comb through rubble.

The International Red Cross said hospitals in the Gaza Strip were overwhelmed and unable to cope with the casualties.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who hopes to become prime minister after an election in February, said Israel was targeting militants but "unfortunately in a war ... sometimes also civilians pay the price."

Militants have fired more than 100 rockets and mortar shells onto Israeli territory since the attacks began on Saturday, killing one Israeli citizen and wounding 10.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum urged Palestinian groups to use "all available means, including martyrdom operations" -- a reference to suicide bombings in Israel.

The violence pushed the price of oil by as much as 5.6 percent to nearly $40 a barrel on Monday as violence reminded traders of the risks to oil supplies from the Middle East.

Across the Middle East, Arab protestors burned Israeli and US flags in response to the Israeli offensive.

Israel's government has been under pressure to respond to the rocket and mortar attacks ahead of the February 10 election.

But Livni appeared to rule out an imminent large-scale invasion to restore Israeli control of the blockaded Gaza Strip, once dotted with Jewish settlements.

"Our goal is not to reoccupy Gaza Strip," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press" program. Asked on Fox News if Israel was out to topple Gaza's Hamas rulers, Livni said: "Not now."

Differing Reactions From US, EU

The United States blamed Hamas for breaking a cease-fire and provoking Israeli air strikes. Washington did not call for an end to the Israeli attacks but urged it to avoid civilian casualties and placed the responsibility for ending the violence on Hamas, which it considers a terrorist organisation.

By contrast the European Union criticized the Israeli air raids and called for an immediate cease-fire. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said in a statement on Saturday: "The EU has repeatedly condemned rocket attacks against Israel. The current Israeli strikes are inflicting an unacceptable toll on Palestinian civilians and will only worsen the humanitarian crisis as well as complicate the search for a peaceful solution."

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a statement issued on Sunday: "The rocket firing by Hamas, which is completely unjustifiable, must stop immediately. Israel for its part must do everything it can to avoid civilian casualties."

cro -- with wire reports


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