GAZA CITY (AFP) -Israel pounded Gaza with fresh air raids and artillery Sunday, ploughing ahead with a massive military assault two weeks after the capture of a soldier sparked the worst Middle East crisis in months.
Israel has rejected a call by Hamas premier Ismail Haniya for a mutual ceasefire, vowing no let-up until Palestinian rocket attacks against the Jewish state cease and the captured teenage soldier is returned safe and sound.
Forty Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed since Israel launched its huge operation last Wednesday, pouring tanks and troops into Gaza and moving into land evacuated last September after a 38-year occupation.
“Any halt of our military operations presupposes the release of Gilad Shalit,” vowed cabinet secretary Israel Maimon, rejecting a ceasefire call and “any negotiations to release prisoners” in a swap for the soldier.
Four Palestinians from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades faction loosely affiliated to president Mahmud Abbas’s Fatah party were wounded early Sunday in an air strike on Gaza City in Israel’s 12th straight night of aerial attacks.
In Sderot, the hometown of Israeli Defence Minister Amir Peretz, one man was lightly wounded when two Palestinian rockets exploded in the town.
The armed wing of Hamas — one of three groups behind the June 25 attack on an army outpost in which Shalit was abducted and two other soldiers killed, sparking the crisis — claimed to have fired four rockets at the town.
“We announce our responsibility and we promise God we will continue to avenge and stop the Zionist aggression against the Gaza Strip,” the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades said in a statement.
Hamas, whose government offices have been bombed in air raids since Shalit was captured, has warned that Israel’s military assault is complicating the fate of the corporal, who it said was being well looked-after.
The beleaguered Haniya on Saturday stressed that his Hamas government was determined to solve the problem through diplomatic channels in a “peaceful” manner, calling on Israel to halt its military operation.
Israel, however, has vowed to use everything in its power to increase the pressure on the embattled Hamas-led government to free the 19 year old and stop rocket attacks which have sowed panic among Israelis living near Gaza.
The commander of the southern region, General Yoav Galant insisted Saturday that “Operation Summer Rain” would deter Palestinian militants.
“They will think twice before launching attacks when they see in a week, a month or two months from now that hundreds of terrorists have been killed, that infrastructure and ministerial offices have been destroyed,” he said.
In total, militants have launched 30 makeshift rockets towards Israel since the army began a vast military operation in the northern Gaza Strip late Wednesday to stop rocket attacks and retrieve the abducted soldier.
Israeli ground troops on Saturday shifted the focus of their Gaza campaign from the north to the eastern frontier of the narrow Mediterranean territory — one of the most densely populated regions on earth.
Tanks advanced one kilometre (half a mile) to the eastern outskirts of Gaza City where deadly clashes broke out Saturday, taking up position on open farmland and in industrial areas searching for explosives and militant tunnels.
Witnesses said troops remained in their positions early Sunday and reported heavy tank shelling in eastern and northern Gaza following the latest Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel.
“We finished the first stage of the operation, we are preparing the next and if necessary we will return to sectors we have already hit,” Colonel Tamir Yedahi, one of the officers in charge of the operation, told public radio.
Overnight, Israeli aircraft attacked a Fatah building near the southern town of Khan Yunis that the army said was used to direct “terror activity”, a bridge in the north, repeatedly attacked in recent days, and armed Palestinian cells.
Funerals were due to take place later Sunday for three members of the same Palestinian family — a six-year-old girl, her 20-year-old brother and their mother — who were killed in an Israeli airstrike ate Saturday.
The military, which was embarrassed by a series of botched air strikes that killed at least 22 civilians last month before militants carried out their “revenge” attack on June 25, said the raid had targeted a group of militants.
As the death toll mounted Saturday amid fears of basic shortages and with petrol stations still closed in Gaza City, UN chief Kofi Annan demanded immediate access for UN workers and humanitarian relief supplies to Gaza.
He called for an immediate halt to Israel’s “disproportionate use of force” and for Palestinian militants to release Shalit.
“I am appealing for urgent action to alleviate the desperate humanitarian situation of the civilian population,” he said.