Death toll in Gaza offensive tops 1,000


The Palestinian death toll in Israel's Gaza offensive topped 1,000 today, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said, while Egyptian mediators pressed both sides for a ceasefire to stop nearly three weeks of bloodshed.

The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human rights said more than 670 civilians were among the dead. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have been killed since Israel launched its campaign on December 27th.

Backing its demand that any ceasefire ensure that Hamas cannot rearm, Israel sent warplanes to drop more bunker-busting bombs on smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.

"They used bombs that went deep into the tunnels and shook the whole Rafah refugee camp. The land trembled beneath our feet," said Bassam Abdallah, a local Palestinian cameraman. "We used to be afraid -- but now we're getting used to it."

In Cairo, UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon renewed his call for "an immediate and durable ceasefire" between Israel and Hamas, which today fired more rockets into southern Israeli cities, causing no casualties.

An Israeli official who asked not to be identified said Egypt, trying to broker a ceasefire, was pushing for a deal by the weekend.

The official said "there has been progress" on talks over border controls to prevent Hamas from replenishing its arsenal. But he said Israeli leaders were non-committal about the prospect of reaching a ceasefire accord in the next few days.

A Hamas delegation in Cairo wrapped up another session of discussions with Egyptian mediators. A senior Israeli defence official was expected to visit Cairo tomorrow.

"The talks did not finish completely. We have presented our vision for a solution and we are awaiting the response," Hamas official Ayman Taha told reporters from the Egyptian capital. He gave no details of Hamas's ceasefire terms.

In northern Israel, three rockets launched from Lebanon hit fields outside the town of Kiryat Shmona, the second such attack in less than a week. There was no immediate claim of responsibility and Israel, which responded with artillery, said it hoped to avoid the opening of a second front.

No one was hurt on either side of the tense border.

Releasing new figures, the Health Ministry in the Gaza Strip said 1,010 Palestinians had been killed and 4,700 wounded by Israeli forces in 18 days of fighting.

The Israeli military said its aircraft bombed about 35 tunnels under the Gaza Strip's border with Egypt and also struck Hamas police headquarters in the Israeli-encircled city of Gaza, eight squads of gunmen and weapons storage facilities.

Six Palestinian militants and four civilians were killed in the Israeli attacks, medical workers said.

An Egyptian proposal to end the hostilities calls for a temporary ceasefire, followed by a long-term truce and the opening of Gaza's border crossings in the presence of officials from the Palestinian Authority of president Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces Hamas drove out of Gaza in 2007.

The third phase of the initiative deals with efforts to reconcile Hamas and Mr Abbas's Fatah group.

Hamas sources, speaking before the latest negotiating session, said the group was demanding a six to 12-month-long renewable truce coupled with an Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the opening of crossing points.

In an audio tape on Islamist websites, Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden called for jihad (holy struggle) over the Israeli offensive, which has caused widespread anger in the Arab and Muslim world.

Addressing "our brothers in Palestine", he said: "We are with you and we will not let you down. Our fate is tied to yours in fighting the Crusader-Zionist coalition, in fighting until victory or martyrdom."

With Israeli troops edging closer to the heart of the city of Gaza, international organisations have expressed growing concern about the plight of children trapped there.

Human rights groups have reported shortages of vital supplies, including water, in the Hamas-ruled territory. A fuel shortage has brought frequent power blackouts.

Israel has permitted almost daily truck shipments of food and medicine. But Human Rights Watch said Israel's daily three-hour break in attacks to facilitate the supply of humanitarian aid to Gazans was "woefully insufficient".