GAZA CITY (AFP) -Israel battered the Gaza Strip with more air strikes as the government gave the green light to intensify the offensive that has killed more than 50 Palestinians in a week.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert defends the operation, aimed at securing the release of a teenage soldier captured by Hamas militants and halting Palestinian rocket attacks, despite widespread international criticism that it is disproportianate.
A Palestinian security officer was killed and six people were wounded in the latest Israeli air strikes hitting northern Gaza, medical sources said Tuesday, as the punishing aerial campaign moved into a third week since the soldier’s capture.
The air raids — which the Israeli military said targeted rockets and a “cell about to launch them” — came just one day after nine Palestinians died from Israeli fire elsewhere in the impoverished and radicalised Gaza Strip.
The dead man was named as Ahmed Shahid. Medics said he was struck by a missile fired towards a car. The army said the attack targeted a vehicle used to get to a rocket-launch site and loaded with rockets in the Beit Hanun area.
Two Palestinians were wounded in earlier strikes in the industrial zone of Beit Hanun, which in turn followed overnight strikes on a bridge in northern Gaza and on a “gunman” west of the Karni transit point in and out of Gaza.
Israeli defence sources said the government had given the military authority to continue, and if necessary, intensify the “Summer Rain” offensive, with infantry and armour poised to carry out “in depth” incursions.
Approval was granted during consultations late on Monday between Olmert and Defence Minister Amir Peretz.
Troops are still massed on the eastern and northern border of the Gaza Strip — one of the most densely populated areas on earth — as well as stationed east of Gaza City and in the south near a defunct airport.
Olmert was on Tuesday to confer again with military commanders to discuss the offensive, the largest operation since Israel pulled out of the Gaza Strip in September last year.
The prime minister has refused to negotiate with Hamas or free Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the missing 19-year-old Corporal Gilad Shalit.
The exiled political chief of Hamas, which formed a Palestinian government last March, insisted the captured teenage soldier at the heart of the crisis would not be freed without a swap for prisoners jailed in Israel.
“We haven’t set a particular timetable for this operation. We will continue in places, in time, in measures that will suit our purposes,” said Olmert.
“I think that once the Qassam (rocket) shooting will be stopped and the terrorist actions against innocent civilians will be halted altogether, there will be no need for any Israeli action in Gaza,” he said.
At least 51 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed since Israel tanks and troops poured into the Gaza Strip.
Israel has said its troops are likely to be in for the long haul, rejecting a call by Palestinian prime minister Ismail Haniya for a ceasefire but denying that the offensive aimed to topple his Hamas government.
“This government is terror,” Olmert said, but added: “We have no particular desire to topple the Hamas government as a policy.”
Hamas, which has seen its government offices bombed by Israel since Shalit’s capture during an attack on an army post on June 25, has warned that the assault is complicating mediation efforts aimed at freeing the corporal.
Hamas’s armed wing claims to be holding the soldier, along with two other militant groups, the Popular Resistance Committees and the Army of Islam.
Aid groups have expressed concern about the difficulties of providing assistance to 1.4 million people living in Gaza following months of financial crisis and the suspension of direct Western aid to the Hamas-led government.
Exiled Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal, one of Israel’s most wanted men, has declared the captured soldier was being treated as a prisoner of war but that his life would be protected.
“There will be no freedom for the Israeli prisoner without an exchange involving Palestinian detainees,” he stressed on Monday.
The United States chided Meshaal for “sitting in Damascus” and dictating the will of Palestinian people.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi is due to arrive in the region on Tuesday for separate talks with Olmert and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on a trip he hopes will help calm tensions.