GAZA CITY (AFP) — The heaviest fighting of Israel’s war on Hamas raged in Gaza City early on Tuesday as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert rebuffed appeals to stop the death toll from mounting further.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy led new calls to halt the conflict, which doctors say has killed at least 560 Palestinians, but Olmert and other top officials said the offensive to halt militant rocket attacks will continue.
With Israeli helicopters firing heavy machine guns from above, tanks shelled the dense Shejaiya district of eastern Gaza City, residents said.
Flares lit the night sky over a city without electricity as blasts shook the area.
Amid the chaos, the Israeli army said three of its soldiers died and 24 were wounded when their position was accidentally hit by tank fire in northern Gaza.
Hamas said it fired missiles at seven tanks in Shejaiya and killed 10 Israeli soldiers. An army spokesman dismissed the claim as “just a rumour.”
At least 13 children were among 60 bodies taken to Gaza hospitals on Monday, medics said. Almost 100 children have been killed since the Israeli air raids began on December 27, according to emergency services.
More than 2,700 people have been wounded , and the International Red Cross said people were dying because ambulances could not reach them.
As “Operation Cast Lead” intensified , Olmert told Sarkozy it would continue until Hamas could no longer fire rockets at Israel.
“The results of the operation must be… that Hamas must not only stop firing but must no longer be able to fire,” he was quoted as saying.
“We cannot accept a compromise that will allow Hamas to fire in two months against Israeli towns.”
Sarkozy was in Jerusalem after meeting Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah, where he said he would tell Israeli leaders “the violence must halt.”
Sarkozy said: “We, Europe, want a ceasefire as soon as possible. Time is working against peace. The weapons must be silenced and there must be a temporary humanitarian truce.”
He called the Hamas rocket attacks “irresponsible and unforgivable,” sparking the Islamists’ retort that he was “totally biased” towards Israel.
Olmert and Sarkozy agreed the latter would continue to push for a deal involving Egypt.
Cairo brokered the six-month truce that ended on December 19, which Hamas refused to renew, and earlier on Monday Sarkozy met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni also rejected European Union calls for an immediate ceasefire.
“We are fighting with terror and we are not reaching an agreement with terror,” she said after meeting a delegation led by Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency.
“When Israel is being targeted, Israel is going to retaliate.”
US President George W. Bush has also said any truce must ensure an end to rocket fire: “I understand Israel’s desire to protect itself and that the situation now taking place in Gaza was caused by Hamas.”
Israeli warplanes flew more than 40 air strikes on Monday. The military said they hit a mosque “where arms were being stored,” as well as houses and tunnels they said were used as arms caches.
Naval vessels also bombarded targets to support the ground offensive launched on Saturday night, as shelling hit Bureij refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip, killing three people.
In the central town of Deir al-Balah, four Hamas fighters and two Islamic Jihad gunmen died when the house they were in was hit by tank fire, witnesses said.
A couple and their five children were killed by a navy shell, medics said. Three children were killed by a shell in the Gaza City suburbs and two were killed in Shati, they said.
Israel says dozens of Hamas fighters and four Israeli soldiers have been killed since Saturday. Another 79 soldiers have been wounded.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak pledged the war would continue.
“We have hit Hamas hard, but we have not yet reached all the goals that we have set for ourselves and the operation continues,” he told a parliamentary committee.
Three civilians and one soldier inside Israel have been killed by rockets over the past 10 days. More than 30 rocket and missile attacks from Gaza were reported on Monday.
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing the densely populated coastal enclave in June 2007, remained defiant.
“Victory is coming,” its senior leader in Gaza, Mahmud Zahar, said in a television broadcast.
“They (Israel) have legitimised the murder of their own children by killing the children of Palestine. They have legitimised the destruction of their synagogues and their schools by hitting our mosques and our schools.”
Israel faces intense international pressure to ease the suffering of the 1.5 million Gaza population, which has no power or water supplies and finding food is a daily struggle.
Eighty truckloads of food and fuel were allowed in after lengthy delays on Monday.
The UN Security Council was to meet again on Tuesday to weigh an Arab call for an immediate ceasefire and for protection of Palestinian civilians, diplomats said.