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MID: Israel takes war into Gaza capital, rejects ceasefire call

By Mai Yaghi
06 Jan 2009 5:16 AM

GAZA CITY, Jan 5 AFP - Israeli troops battled Hamas fighters in Gaza's main city for the first time on Monday - after dozens died in a day of clashes - while the government fended off worldwide calls for a ceasefire.

Amid raging combat in Gaza City, and as the Palestinian death toll rose to 550, French and Russian presidents Nicolas Sarkozy and Dmitry Medvedev both demanded a halt to the conflict. But Israeli ministers said the offensive would go on.

Large explosions and heavy gunfire rocked the Shejaiya neighbourhood of eastern Gaza City as night fell. Israeli military sources confirmed there were heavy clashes.

Flares lit up the skies over the blacked-out neighbourhood. Assault helicopters were also seen.

Hamas said its fighters had unleashed missiles against seven tanks in the district. Its Islamic Jihad allies said several of its members were killed in the fighting.

At least 12 children were among 50 new bodies taken to Gaza hospitals after air missile and tank attacks Monday, medics said.

But as Israel intensified its air and ground operation, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni rejected EU calls for an immediate ceasefire.

"We are fighting with terror and we are not reaching an agreement with terror," Livni declared after talks with an EU ministerial delegation led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

Israel acted to change a situation where "Hamas targets Israel whenever it likes and Israel shows restraint," she said. "This is no longer going to be the equation in this region. When Israel is being targeted, Israel is going to retaliate."

The French president arrived later to press the ceasefire offensive.

After a meeting in Ramallah with the Palestinian Authority leader, Sarkozy said he would tell Israeli leaders that "the violence must halt". The French president called the Hamas rocket attacks on Israel "irresponsible and unforgiveable".

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called for an immediate ceasefire after telephone talks with Abbas earlier, the Kremlin said.

But US President George W Bush said any Gaza ceasefire must ensure Hamas militants can no longer fire rockets on Israeli towns.

"I understand Israel's desire to protect itself and that the situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas," Bush said.

Fighter jets carried out more than 30 air strikes during the day. The military said they hit a mosque "where arms were being stored, as well as houses containing arms caches and vehicles that were transporting rocket launchers and armed men."

Naval ships off the coast also bombarded targets to help the ground offensive launched on Saturday night.

The Israeli strikes killed 50 Palestinians on Monday, including 12 children, medics said.

A couple and their five children were killed by one navy shell, medics said. Three children were killed by a tank shell in Zeitun in the Gaza City suburbs and two were killed in Shati by a naval strike, they said.

At least 550 Palestinians - including almost 100 children - have been killed since Israel launched Operation Cast Lead on December 27, Gaza's emergency services said. More than 2,700 have been wounded.

Israel says dozens of Hamas fighters have been killed while one Israeli soldier has been reported dead and 55 wounded since Saturday.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak told parliament the Hamas war would go on.

"Gaza City is partially surrounded," Barak told MPs. "We have hit Hamas hard, but we have not yet reached all the goals that we have set for ourselves and the operation continues."

Three civilians and one soldier have been killed by rockets fired from Gaza since Israel's operation started. More than 30 rocket and missile attacks were reported on Monday. One hit a kindergarten which was closed because of the crisis.

Hamas remained defiant. "Victory is coming," the movement's senior leader in Gaza, Mahmud Zahar, said in a television address in which he praised "the most beautiful performances" of the group's armed wing.

"They have legitimised the murder of their own children by killing the children of Palestine," he said. "They have legitimised the destruction of their synagogues and their schools by hitting our mosques and our schools."

Israel faces intense international pressure to agree a ceasefire and ease the suffering of the 1.5 million Gaza population which has no power or water supplies and endures a daily struggle to get food, according to aid agencies.

Eighty truckloads of food and fuel were allowed to cross into Gaza after long delays while aid agencies organised transportation on the Gaza side.

The Israeli offensive has sparked spiralling anger in the Muslim world and protests across the globe.

Mauritania, one of only three Arab countries to have full diplomatic ties with Israel, withdrew its ambassador in protest.