Israel poised to step up Gaza ground offensive


  WITH LITTLE sign of progress in ceasefire talks between Egypt and Hamas, Israel’s leaders are set to decide in a day or two whether to step up the ground offensive in Gaza. Military leaders have finalised plans for escalating the campaign, which will likely involve a deeper thrust into Gaza city and areas in the south of the coastal strip.

Some 5,000 reservists have already joined the fighting, while thousands more have completed training and are poised to join the fray.

With troops already ringing the outskirts of Gaza city, and the strip cut in two, military sources say the current phase of the campaign is nearing completion.

The military planners are wary of keeping the soldiers in static positions, making them easy targets for Hamas hit-and-run guerilla attacks.

Israel has again been accused of human rights abuses in its offensive in Gaza. Human Rights Watch called on Israel to stop firing white phosphorous shells into heavily populated areas of Gaza.

“White phosphorus can burn down houses and cause horrific burns when it touches the skin,” said Marc Garlasco, the organisation’s military analyst.

Doctors in Gaza say one person has died and a number have suffered injuries consistent with white phosphorus burns.

Meanwhile, the Israeli media is reporting serious differences among the “war troika”, prime minister Ehud Olmert, defence minister Ehud Barak and foreign minister Tzipi Livni, over when to end the campaign.

Ms Livni and Mr Barak want to wind it up now but Ehud Olmert wants to pursue the offensive until an acceptable ceasefire is brokered by Egypt.

Visiting the southern city of Ashkelon yesterday, shortly after a rocket hit, Mr Olmert vowed to continue the war until the rocket attacks ceased and Hamas was unable to rearm.

“Anything else will be met with the Israeli people’s iron fist,” Mr Olmert said. “We will continue as long as necessary to remove this threat from our heads.”

Foreign minister Tzipi Livni said Israel was a country that reacts vigorously when its citizens are fired upon.

“That is something that Hamas now understands and that is how we are going to react in the future, if they so much as dare fire one missile at Israel.”

The feeling in Israel is that the operation will be over, at the latest, before January 20th, when Barack Obama is sworn in as president.

The Israeli leadership does not want to embarrass the new president with a Middle East war raging, involving Washington’s closest ally in the region, as he begins his term of office.

The clashes continued yesterday as Israeli aircraft again targeted the homes of Hamas leaders.

Israeli military spokeswoman Maj Avital Leibovich said troops were continuing their advance into urban areas.

“Since the majority of the Hamas militants are pretty much in hiding in those places, mainly urban places, then we operate in those areas,” she said.

The army said soldiers came under fire from gunmen in a mosque, and rockets were later found in the building.

Militants fired at least 17 rockets and mortars into Israel yesterday. Despite the rocket attacks, many towns in southern Israel reopened schools for matriculation-level students, although lessons were restricted to bomb shelters and reinforced classrooms.

Israeli military sources said that of the more than 900 people killed since the operation was launched on December 27th, 400 are known Hamas operatives and about half of the remaining 500 are believed to be militants.

Sources in Gaza estimated that about half the fatalities were civilians. A total of 13 Israelis have been killed: 10 soldiers and three civilians.