GAZA CITY, Jan 13, 2009 (AFP) – Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters fought fierce battles in the streets of Gaza City early Tuesday as a war on Hamas that has killed more than 900 Palestinians entered its 18th day.
Israeli special forces backed by tanks and air strikes lunged ever deeper into Gaza’s main city overnight, advancing several hundred metres (yards) into several neighbourhoods in the south, witnesses and correspondents said.
Palestinian fighters fought back with roadside bombs and mortar and gunfire. The explosions of bombs, thuds of tanks shells and the rattle of gunfire kept terrified residents who had not yet fled the area awake through the night.
An Israeli army patrol came under gunfire from inside Jordan early on Tuesday, the army said, adding that no one was hurt in the rare attack.
“A border guard patrol near the Rabin crossing came under fire from an unknown source from inside Jordanian territory and fired back in their direction,” a spokesman told AFP.
“There were no injuries or damage,” he said.
A Jordanian military official denied the incident.
The clashes come as the Israeli media widely speculated that the country’s leadership may approve an expansion of its massive offensive in Gaza despite ongoing talks in Egypt on how to end a war launched to stop rocket fire.
The tanks retreated shortly after dawn from the neighbourhoods of Tal al-Hawa and Sheikh Ajlin, allowing medics to rush into the area.
At least one person was killed in the nightime fighting although the toll was expected to be higher, medics said. Tanks and troops remained camped in the outlying neighbourhood of Zeitun.
Clashes between troops and fighters were also reported around the southern town of Khan Yunis.
Israeli warplanes pounded the densely-populated coastal strip with more than 60 air strikes overnight, targetting rocket launching sites, weapons storage facilities, Hamas outposts and smuggling tunnels on Gaza’s border with Egypt, the army said.
Hamas kept up its defiance in the face of the onslaught, vowing it would emerge victorious, but said it was ready to examine truce initiatives.
In a rare televised address on Monday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniya vowed: “We are approaching victory.”
“I tell you that after 17 days of this foolish war, Gaza has not been broken and Gaza will not fall,” said the head of the Hamas government in Gaza, which the Islamists seized from forces loyal to moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in June 2007.
But Haniya, who is not considered to wield influence over the group’s armed wing, said the Islamists were ready to “examine in a positive manner any initiative which can put an end to this aggression and the blood of our children being shed.”
A Hamas delegation has been holding talks in Egypt on a Western-backed proposal by President Hosni Mubarak on how to end the fighting.
Haniya also said the “blood of children” who have been killed in the conflict would serve as a “curse which will come back to haunt” US President George W. Bush.
Bush has consistently blamed Hamas for the conflict, saying that while he wanted to see a “sustainable ceasefire,” it was up to Hamas to choose to end its rocket fire.
Israel and Hamas both ignored a UN Security Council resolution — on which the United States abstained but backed in principle — which called last week for a truce.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon, who is to head to the Middle East on Tuesday, called on Israel and Hamas to immediately stop the fighting, saying “too many people have died.”
The Security Council was to hold closed-door consultations on the crisis later on Tuesday.
The focus of peace efforts has been on an Egyptian proposal for an immediate ceasefire to allow humanitarian aid into impoverished Gaza, talks on opening Gaza’s border crossings and taking steps to prevent arms smuggling.
Olmert said Israel’s key demands were non-negotiable.
“We want to end the operation when the two conditions we have demanded are met: ending the rocket fire and stopping Hamas’s rearmament. If these two conditions are met, we will end our operation in Gaza,” he said.
“Anything else will meet the iron fist of the Israeli people.”
Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad, whose remit is limited to the West Bank, said the Egyptian initiative offered the best hope of peace, putting pressure on both Israel and Hamas to respond positively.
“He who refuses, voices reservations or moves slowly on this initiative bears the responsibility of explaining themselves, especially to the people of Gaza,” he said.
Aid deliveries have been massively disrupted by the conflict, with agencies warning that residents are running out of food and even having to burn their furniture to stay warm in the bitterly cold nights.
Since Israel unleashed its Operation Cast Lead on December 27, at least 918 people, including 277 children, have been killed and another 4,100 wounded, according to Gaza medics.
Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or by rocket attacks in the same period and militants have fired some 700 rockets and mortars into Israel.