Israeli troops and tanks yesterday began heavy fighting in a suburb of Gaza City for the first time as local medics reported 46 Palestinian deaths. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared that Israel was “getting close to achieving the goals it set for itself” in its 15 day-offensive.
But with the top Israeli Defence Ministry official, Amos Gilad preparing to fly again to Cairo for fresh peace talks, Mr Olmert set no timetable for ending a military campaign which has now caused an estimated 884 Palestinian deaths and is aimed at stopping militant rocket attacks into southern Israel.
He instead warned that “patience, determination and effort are still needed to realise these goals in a manner that will change the security situation in the south.”
As dusk fell it was still not clear whether the Israeli military intends to implement its so called “third phase” of the military campaign by penetrating deeper into the heart of Gaza City and other urban centres before allowing time for diplomatic efforts now focused on Cairo to end the war.
The Israeli military fuelled speculation it would, when it confirmed that reserve units were already operating inside Gaza.
With civilians forming a high proportion of the total casualties – including 275 children and teenagers under 18, 93 women and 12 medics, according to Gaza ministry health figures cited by the UN – Maxwell Gaylard, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator for Palestinian territories said residents were “terrified, starving, traumatised, thirsty, desperate”.
Figures show that 30,000 people have now taken refuge from the fighting in 31 overcrowded UN shelters in Gaza and many tens of thousands more have moved from their homes.
Yesterday's fighting in the coastal Sheikh Aijleen district of southern Gaza City, on one of the main approach roads to the metropolis, came after an earlier 24 hours of heavy land and air bombardment during which eight members of the Abed Rabbo family were killed when an artillery shell struck their home in Jabalya. The strikes included the destruction of the home of the leader of Hamas's military wing Ahmad Jabari, who was not there.
It said amid “many exchanges of fire” between ground troops it had conducted more than 60 air strikes yesterday including one which it said hit a launching squad responsible for two Grad rockets which landed in Beersheba, one near an empty kindergarten. In all it said that militants had fired 20 rockets at Israel.
With Israeli officials talking of Operation Cast Lead moving towards “an endgame” it became clear diplomatic talks no longer envisaged a full international force but instead were concentrating on Egypt using its own forces, bolstered by US and possibly German military technicians to stop future smuggling of weapons through Gaza's southern border.
The main hope for an end of the carnage in Gaza rests with the prospect of an internationally underwritten agreement between Israel, Egypt, and the moderate-led Palestinian Authority under which Israel would hold fire and probably withdraw its forces in return for an Egyptian guarantee to halt the smuggling.
The hope would then be that Hamas, which would not be a party to the agreement, would cease firing rockets. If such an agreement were reached and Hamas continued to fire rockets, the Israeli military would then resume its operations with what Israeli officials envisage would be much less international criticism than now. Matan Vilnai, the Israeli deputy defence minister said before yesterday's Cabinet meeting that the operation could be “close” to ending. Mark Regev, Mr Olmert's spokesman said the decision had been to “continue with the military pressure on Hamas in parallel with the diplomatic discussions”.