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MID: Israel warns of ground offensive as jets pound Hamas in Gaza

By Sakher Abu El Oun
28 Dec 2008 5:59 PM

GAZA CITY, Dec 28 AFP - Israel has warned it could send ground troops into Gaza as its warplanes continued to pound Hamas targets in the overcrowded enclave where nearly 230 Palestinians have been killed.

"We are ready for anything. If it's necessary to deploy ground forces to defend our citizens, we will do so," a spokesman for Defence Minister Ehud Barak quoted him as saying.

Israeli television said on Sunday that the army had begun concentrating ground forces near the tiny Palestinian territory, where Israeli air strikes have killed nearly 230 people and wounded another 700 since Saturday.

Jets continued to pound the overcrowded territory of 1.5 million, with many people reported wounded in a fresh air strike on a Hamas police station in northern Gaza.

A military spokesman said Israeli aircraft had staged several air raids throughout the night, including against a mosque in the Rimal neighbourhood of Gaza City "where terrorists were being sheltered".

On Saturday, Barak said "Operation Cast Lead" against the Islamist movement will continue for "as long as necessary".

The Israeli campaign began mid-morning on Saturday with some 60 warplanes striking more than 50 targets in just a few minutes.

Hamas responded by firing more than 70 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel, killing one person and injuring four, according to an Israeli army toll.

Hamas remained defiant, with the movement's exiled leader Khaled Meshaal calling in Damascus for a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel and promising new suicide attacks.

"We will not stand down and we will not cave in even if (the Israelis) should eradicate the Gaza Strip or kill thousands of us," Ismail Haniya, who heads the Hamas government in Gaza, said in a defiant broadcast.

Meshaal called for a "military intifada against the enemy" and said "resistance will continue through suicide missions".

Hamas has not carried out a suicide attack in Israel since January 2005.

He said that for there to be any talks with the people of Gaza, "the blockade must be lifted and the crossings (from Israel) opened ... notably that in Rafah," which leads to Egypt.

Israel imposed a blockade after Hamas seized power in Gaza last year, but let in dozens of truckloads of humanitarian aid on Friday.

The White House said that only Hamas could end the cycle of violence by putting a stop to the rocket fire on Israel.

"These people are nothing but thugs, and so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas," spokesman Gordon Johndroe said at US President George W Bush's Texas ranch.

"If Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel, then Israel would not have a need for strikes in Gaza," Johndroe said. "What we've got to see is Hamas stop firing rockets into Israel.

Johndroe said Washington holds Hamas responsible for breaking a six-month truce mediated by Egypt, which ended on December 19 when Hamas refused to renew it.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged Israel will do its utmost to avert a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

"The people in Gaza do not deserve to suffer because of the killers and murderers of the terrorist organisation," he said, referring to Hamas.

He insisted that Israel had only hit Hamas targets, including command structures and rocket manufacturing installations.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the violence, as did the European Union, Russia, Britain and France, while several Middle Eastern states and the Arab League slammed Israel.

The UN Security Council went into emergency consultations late Saturday to discuss a Libyan call for an immediate halt to Israeli air strikes on Gaza.

The Arab League will hold an extraordinary summit in Doha on January 2 to discuss the crisis, diplomats in Cairo said.

Palestinian medics said civilians had been hit in the strikes, but most of the victims appeared to be members of Hamas, branded a terrorist group by Israel and the West.

The bombing onslaught came after days of spiralling violence, with militants firing rockets and Israel vowing a fiery response.

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who brokered the six-month truce, slammed the "Israeli military aggression on the Gaza Strip" and blamed "Israel, as an occupying force, for the victims and the wounded".

The wave of air raids comes less than two months before Israeli snap elections called for February 10.