GAZA CITY (AFP) — Israeli troops and Hamas fighters battled on Sunday in some of their heaviest clashes yet as Israel said it is nearing the goals of its war and the defiant Islamists vowed to fight on.
As the two sides fought on, ignoring world pleas to stop the 16-day-old war that has killed more than 875 people, Egypt was keeping up efforts to broker a truce in Israel’s deadliest ever assault on the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Israeli infantry units backed by tanks pushed deeper into Gaza’s main city overnight near the southern Tal al-Hawa neighbourhood, encountering roadside bombs, mortar and gunfire from Palestinian fighters, witnesses said.
The troops withdrew at daybreak, but panicked residents fled from the area, clutching babies, toddlers and hurriedly-packed bags after a sleepless night that saw some of the fiercest confrontations so far, witnesses said.
Civilians continued to fall victim to Israel’s onslaught on the Palestinian enclave, one of the world’s most densely populated places where every other person of the 1.5 million population is under 18 years of age.
Two women and four children were killed in a strike on a house in Beit Lahiya, medics and witnesses said. Twelve bodies were pulled from the rubble in Tal al-Hawa, 10 of them fighters, medics said.
Hamas and its allies fired seven rockets into Israel, with the projectiles slamming as far as 40 kilometres (24 miles) inside the Jewish state, without causing injuries.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the Jewish state is approaching the goals it had set for the offensive that it launched on December 27 in response to rocket fire, but said fighting will continue for the time being.
“This is a time to translate our achievements into the goals we have set,” Olmert said at the start of a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem.
“Israel is approaching these goals, but more patience and determination are required in order to reach these goals” and “change the security reality in the south in a way that will allow our citizens to live in security and stability over a long period of time,” he said.
Defence Minister Ehud Barak told reporters that Israel is “examining the diplomatic channel” while continuing its offensive.
“There’s no contradiction between the two,” said Barak, who is due to again send senior aide Amos Gilad to Cairo in coming days for Egyptian-led talks on ending the war.
Israeli warplanes bombed about 60 targets throughout the Gaza Strip overnight, hitting weapon depots and smuggling tunnels as well as a mosque that was allegedly used to store weapons and train fighters, the army said.
In all, at least 26 Palestinians have been killed in clashes on Sunday, medics said.
With the body count spiralling, the exiled political chief of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, remained defiant, vowing in an address televised late Saturday night the Islamists would not negotiate “under fire.”
Branding the Israeli operation a “holocaust,” Meshaal said “the enemy has totally failed” and “created resistance in every house.”
He once again ruled out a permanent truce with Israel, a country his movement is pledged to destroying.
“We will not accept a permanent truce because … as long as there is an occupation there is a resistance,” he said, adding that his group will not hold talks on a temporary truce until Israel stops its offensive.
“We will not accept negotiations on a truce under fire,” he said. Israel had wrecked “the last chance for a settlement” with its assault on Gaza.
Since the Israeli offensive began on December 27, at least 879 people have been killed, including 275 children, and another 3,620 wounded, according to Gaza medics.
Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or in rocket attacks since the operation began, as Palestinian militants have fired more than 600 rockets, some of them penetrating deeper than ever inside Israel.
Egypt has been spearheading Western-backed efforts to end the fighting, calling for an immediate truce, opening Gaza’s border crossings, preventing arms smuggling and a call for Palestinians to resume reconciliation talks.
Both Hamas and Israel have brushed aside a UN Security Council resolution which last Thursday called for an immediate truce in the territory.
The conflict has sparked worldwide pro-Palestinian demonstrations, including rallies in Europe that drew tens of thousands of protesters.
On Sunday, 20,000 Indonesian Muslims rallied against the war.