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Israel pounds Gaza for second week

GAZA CITY, Jan 3 – Israeli air strikes claimed a Hamas military commander and destroyed a Gaza school on Saturday as an assault on Gaza which has so far killed more than 440 Palestinians entered its second week.

Troops and tanks massed at the border remained on alert to advance into Gaza after seven days that have seen more than 750 air raids launched against Hamas leaders and military targets.

Israeli media reports said a ground offensive was imminent.

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal warned Israel of a "black destiny" if it invades. But US leaders have given their key Middle East ally free rein to begin a ground operation, again blaming Hamas for sparking the new conflict.

More than 30 air raids on Saturday hit Hamas targets across the densely populated territory.

One strike killed Mohammad al-Jammal, 40, who Gaza sources said was a Hamas military commander. Israel said he was responsible "for the entire rocket launching enterprise in all of Gaza City."

Jammal’s death came two days after an air raid killed top Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan.

Another raid demolished a school in northern Gaza and killed a guard there. Israel said its warplanes had targeted "a college used as a base for firing a large number of rockets."

Two people were killed when a strike hit their car in the southern city of Khan Yunis, medics said.

Militants responded with some 10 rockets and mortar rounds, lightly wounding two people in the Israeli port of Ashdod, officials said.

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The Israeli strikes have so far failed in their declared aim of ending rocket fire from Gaza. Militants have fired some 500 rockets and mortar rounds at Israel over the past week, killing four people and wounding several dozen.

There is mounting international concern over the humanitarian impact of "Operation Cast Lead" which has left at least 442 Palestinians dead and 2,290 wounded. At least 75 of those killed have been children, Gaza medics said.

Maxwell Gaylard, the UN humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinian territories, said on Friday "there is a critical emergency in the Gaza Strip right now. By any definition this is a humanitarian crisis and more."

About 80 percent of the 1.5 million population relies on international food aid.

But the United States has given fresh backing to Israel, insisting that the key to a truce is Israel’s demand that Hamas stop firing rockets.

"I think any steps they are taking, whether it’s from the air or on the ground or anything of that nature, are part and parcel of the same operation," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.

In his weekly Saturday radio address, the text of which was released by the White House late on Friday, President George W. Bush called on Hamas "to turn away from terror, and to support legitimate Palestinian leaders working for peace."

Bush blamed Hamas for the violence and rejected calls for a unilateral ceasefire that he said would allow the Islamists to continue targeting Israel with rocket and mortar fire.

Thousands of Israeli troops with tanks are waiting along the 60-kilometre (37-mile) border with Gaza for the green light from the government to advance.

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Amid new diplomatic efforts to halt the fighting, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas was to meet French President counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy in Ramallah on Monday. He was then to travel to New York to appeal for a ceasefire at the UN Security Council.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Saturday met Iran’s Supreme National Security Council chief Saeed Jalili to discuss the Gaza crisis, Syria’s official SANA news agency reported.

Jalili also met the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdullah Shallah on Friday, a Palestinian source said.

In a televised speech on Friday night, Meshaal warned Israel: "If you commit the stupidity of launching a ground offensive then a black destiny awaits you."

The week of Israeli strikes has destroyed Hamas government buildings, the homes of senior Islamist officials, mosques, schools and other buildings said to have stored weapons, and roads and tunnels used to smuggle arms and supplies.

Israel has kept the territory virtually sealed since Hamas seized power there in June 2007 from Fatah forces loyal to the secular Abbas.


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