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Israel warns of ground offensive in Gaza

GAZA CITY, December 28 – Israel warned on Sunday it could send ground troops into Gaza as its warplanes continued pounding Hamas targets inside the enclave where more than 270 Palestinians have been killed in just 24 hours.

In the latest international call for an end to the violence, the United Nations Security Council after an emergency session urged an immediate end to all military operations.

However Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak vowed to expand the mammoth bombing campaign, unleashed in retaliation for militant rocket fire.

"The IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) will expand and deepen its operations in Gaza as much as necessary," he told reporters before a cabinet meeting.

"We are ready for anything. If it’s necessary to deploy ground forces to defend our citizens, we will do so," his spokesman quoted him as saying earlier.

Israeli television said the army had begun concentrating ground forces near the tiny Palestinian enclave, where medics said air raids have killed more than 270 people and wounded another 600 since early on Saturday.

Warplanes continued to pound the impoverished and overcrowded territory of 1.5 million as part of a mammoth campaign launched in retaliation for militant rocket and mortar fire from the Islamist-run stronghold.

Six people were killed on Sunday, medics said, as jets hit targets in northern Gaza, sending thick columns of smoke barrelling into the air.

Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian movement branded a terror group by Israel and the West, remained defiant.

Its exiled leader Khaled Meshaal called in Damascus for a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, against Israel and promised new suicide attacks. Hamas last carried out a suicide bombing against Israel in January 2005.

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"We will not stand down and we will not cave in even if (the Israelis) should eradicate the Gaza Strip or kill thousands of us," Ismail Haniya, who heads the Hamas government, said in a defiant radio address.

The Israeli onslaught — one of the bloodiest single days in the 60-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict — has sparked massive international concern.

In New York, the UN Security Council called for an end to the violence, but without mentioning Israel or Hamas by name.

Croatia’s UN Ambassador Neven Jurica read out a non-binding statement on behalf of the 15-member body that "called for an immediate halt to all violence" and on the parties "to stop immediately all military activities."

The Israeli campaign has been slammed by many Arab nations, and the Arab League is set to meet on January 2 to discuss the situation.

Amid the bombing, Barak also authorised the passage of an aid convoy into Gaza on Sunday, his spokeswoman said.

The Kerem Shalom crossing will be opened "so a convoy transporting humanitarian aid and medicine will be able to pass through."

Israel has kept Gaza largely sealed off since Hamas violently seized power there in June 2007, overrunning forces loyal to secular president Mahmud Abbas.

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged on Saturday that Israel will do its utmost to avert a humanitarian crisis.

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"The people in Gaza do not deserve to suffer because of the killers and murderers of the terrorist organisation," he said, referring to Hamas.

Israel unleashed "Operation Cast Lead" against Hamas targets mid-morning on Saturday, with some 60 warplanes hitting more than 50 targets in just a few minutes, and Barak vowing it would continue for "as long as necessary."

Hamas responded by firing more than 70 rockets and mortar rounds into Israel, killing one man and wounding four others.

The Israeli bombing came after days of spiralling violence followed the expiry of a six-month Egyptian-mediated truce between Israel and Hamas.

It also comes less than two months ahead of Israeli snap elections called for February 10.


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