Israel pounds Gaza for fourth day

December 30, 2008 12:00 am

, GAZA CITY, Dec 30 – Warplanes pounded Gaza for a fourth day on Tuesday as tanks stood by to join the "all-out" war Israel vowed would wipe out Hamas, and the Palestinian death toll rose to at least 360.

Israel made it clear on Monday the offensive was just beginning, even as UN chief Ban Ki-moon urged world leaders to work urgently to end the "unacceptable" violence.

Palestinian militants responded to Israeli air strikes with deadly rocket and mortar fire that has killed five Israelis.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak, who has threatened to launch ground incursions alongside the aerial blitz, said Israel is in "an all-out war with Hamas and its proxies."

Deputy Prime Minister Haim Ramon said the offensive’s goal "is to topple Hamas."

Barak said that if militant rocket attacks do not stop, "Israel will have recourse to every means and all legal actions at its disposal to see to it that the enemy halts its illegal aggression."

With Israeli tanks just metres (yards) away from Gaza, the army decreed the border area a closed military zone – a move that in the past has been followed by ground operations.

"After this operation there will not be a single Hamas building left standing in Gaza, and we plan to change the rules of the game," said armed forces deputy chief of staff Brigadier General Dan Harel, quoted by the YNet News website.

"We are hitting not only terrorists and launchers, but also the whole Hamas government and all its wings," Harel said.

At least 57 Palestinian civilians, including 21 children, have been killed in the Israeli bombardment, a UN spokesman said.

Israeli aircraft carried out dozens of air strikes under the cover of darkness early on Tuesday, targeting Hamas ministry and security buildings, Hamas sources and witnesses said.

The attacks completely destroying the Hamas foreign and finance ministry buildings along with nearby homes, and set off fires, witnesses said.

At least 10 Palestinians were killed and 40 wounded in the latest attacks, the director of Gaza’s emergency services, Moawiya Abu Hassanein told AFP.

In all, the Israeli campaign has killed at least 360 Palestinians and wounded more than 1,690, he said.

Since the onslaught began on Saturday, Gaza militants have fired more than 250 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel, killing five people and wounding two dozen more.

On Monday, one projectile killed an Israeli Arab at a construction site in the southern city of Ashkelon some 13 kilometres north of the Gaza border.

A missile that hit a railyard in Ashdod killed a woman and wounded four more people while a rocket blast at the Nahal Oz kibbutz north of Gaza killed one person and seriously wounded another.

A mortar shell killed an Israeli soldier in his camp near the Gaza Strip on Monday evening, a military spokesman said.

Three rockets also hit Ofakim in the Negev desert around 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Gaza, wounding one person, Israeli emergency services said.

As the fighting continued the White House signalled strong support for Israel.

"The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself," said spokesman Gordon Johndroe. "They are taking the steps that they feel are necessary to deal with the terrorist threat."

At the United Nations, Ban said he was "deeply alarmed by the current escalation of violence in and around Gaza. This is unacceptable.

"Both Israel and Hamas must halt their acts of violence and… a ceasefire must be declared immediately."

He chided leaders, saying: "I think regional and international partners have not done enough. They should do more."

EU foreign ministers were set to meet in Paris on Tuesday to discuss how they can work to help ease the Gaza crisis, the French foreign ministry said.


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