By Richard Boudreaux and Rushdi abu Alouf |
Reporting from Jerusalem and Khan Yunis, Gaza Strip — Israeli troops and tanks thrust into the Gaza Strip’s densely populated capital from three directions today, drawing Hamas fighters into fierce combat in an offensive expanded by a fresh deployment of army reservists.
The assault on Gaza City coincided with a predawn missile barrage that set 20 homes ablaze in a southern Gaza village. Scores of residents suffered burns and gas inhalation, witnesses said. Doctors who treated the victims said they suspected Israel had fired white phosphorus shells, which can be used to illuminate the nighttime battlefield or to lay down a smoke screen.
Plumes of black smoke rose over Gaza City as Israeli ground forces backed by helicopter gunships inched into neighborhoods on the capital’s southwestern, eastern and northern edges before dawn.
Tall apartment buildings shook from the force of Israeli artillery and airstrikes, and Hamas fighters answered with mortars, automatic rifles and grenades. It was the heaviest fighting since Israel attacked the Palestinian enclave Dec. 27, saying it wanted to halt years of rocket attacks on southern Israeli communities.
Troops withdrew from Gaza City after several hours, leaving it unclear whether Israel’s leaders had ordered an all-out assault on Hamas’ central stronghold. A decision to escalate the offensive would bring in tens of thousands of Israeli reservists, who were called up late last month, into a what would likely be close combat, with sharply higher casualties.
Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu said today that the army had begun sending some reservists into Gaza but declined to say whether a new phase of the offensive had begun.
On Saturday, Israel’s aircraft scattered leaflets over Gaza City and Rafah and sent automated calls to Palestinian cellphones warning of an escalation in attacks.
“The IDF [Israel Defense Forces] will escalate the operation in the Gaza Strip,” the messages said in Arabic. “The IDF is not working against the people of Gaza but against Hamas and the terrorists only. Stay safe by following our orders.”
The leaflets urged residents not to help Hamas and to stay away from its members.
Also on Saturday, a senior Hamas commander was killed. The army said its ground forces killed Amir Mansi, commander of Hamas’ rocket-launching teams in Gaza City, after spotting him at a launch site there. Hamas confirmed Mansi’s death.
Palestinian militants fired 15 rockets into Israel, wounding three people.
Diplomatic efforts to end the fighting sputtered as Egypt rebuffed a proposal to place international forces along its border to help prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza. Israel says the offensive is aimed at stopping rocket fire from Gaza and will continue until weapons pipelines into the Hamas-ruled coastal enclave are cut off.
Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza on Jan. 3, after eight days of airstrikes, and have moved to the outskirts of cities. Although there was no sign of an advance, the warnings heightened the panic that has gripped Gaza’s 1.5 million people since the offensive began.
On Saturday, scores of families were seen loading mattresses and other belongings into and atop their cars and moving from outlying neighborhoods of Gaza City to places of refuge closer to the center.
In Saturday’s bloodiest incident, seven members of the Abed Rabbo clan were killed in the late-morning shelling of their grocery store in a village just east of the Jabaliya refugee camp.
Ziad Barqouni, an ambulance driver, said neighbors told him that the shelling had come from an Israeli tank several blocks away. Barqouni said he saw an Israeli helicopter firing into the village as he approached.
The Israeli army denied attacking the area at the time.
Twelve other Palestinian civilians were reported killed Saturday.
Palestinian medical officials said this weekend that nearly half of the 830 Gazans killed in the offensive were civilians. Israeli news media said the army estimated that it had killed 300 militants.
Thirteen Israelis have been killed: 10 soldiers, plus three civilians hit in Israel by rocket fire.