Gaza City: Tanks and warplanes pounded the outskirts of Gaza City before dawn on Sunday after Israel warned it would escalate its war on Hamas targets, as the death toll in the 16-day-old conflict passed 850.
With the body count spiralling, Hamas remained defiant in the face of Egyptian-led efforts to broker a cease fire, vowing it would not negotiate a truce “under fire.”
And medics said three Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded by heavy Israeli tank fire and air strikes, some according to doctors by banned white phosphorous shells that Israel denied using.
As dawn approached, an AFP correspondent reported increasing tank fire on the Al Sheikh Ajlin and Zeitun neighbourhoods of Gaza City, as well as on Sudaniyah, near the Mediterranean Sea in northwestern Gaza.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad said several people had been hurt during clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Israeli tanks on the edge of Al Sheikh Ajlin.
They said militants were placing roadside bombs to impede the advance of the tanks, believed to be attempting their first incursion into the neighbourhood.
An Israeli military spokeswoman confirmed the army had forces in the area, saying they were part of the ongoing operation, but would not say whether their attacks were intensifying or were the beginning of a new push.
Israeli planes on Saturday dropped leaflets over Gaza warning the Jewish state was about to escalate its campaign against the embattled territory’s Hamas rulers in a bid to stop rocket fire into Israel.
Dr Yusef Abu Rish at Gaza City’s Nasser hospital said that at least 55 people were injured early on Sunday by white phosphorous shells, banned under international law for use against civilians, but permitted for creating smokescreens.
“These people were burned over their bodies in a way that can only be caused by white phosphorous,” said Abu Rish.
A military spokeswoman denied the claims. “There is no use of white phosphorous. Everything we use is according to international law,” she said.
A closed-door briefing was told on Saturday that Israeli troops had killed more than 550 Palestinian fighters since the operation began, a senior military official said.
Army spokesman Jacob Dallal declined to confirm the number but said “several hundred” fighters, most of them from Hamas, had been killed since Israel launched its offensive on December 27.
“There is no question that the military ability of Hamas has been diminished,” he said.
But Hamas supremo Khaled Meshaal, speaking from exile in Syria, said Israel was making no headway.
“I can say with full confidence that on the military level the enemy has totally failed; it has not achieved anything,” Meshaal said in pre-recorded remarks broadcast on Arabic satellite television.
“Has it stopped the rockets?” he asked of Israel’s declared aim in launching the offensive.
Meshaal added that Hamas would not accept any truce without the withdrawal of all Israeli forces and the lifting of the blockade slapped on the territory when the Islamists seized power in 18 months ago.
“With an open mind we will work with any initiative or any resolution but only based on these demands. We will not accept negotiations on a truce under fire,” he said.
Since the Israeli offensive began on December 27, at least 854 people have been killed, including 270 children, 93 women, and 12 paramedics, according to Palestinian medics.
Another 3,490 people have been wounded, overwhelming Gaza’s beleaguered medical facilities.
Meanwhile, Hamas and other armed groups fired at least 13 rockets into Israel on Saturday, wounding four people, the army said.
Egypt has been spearheading Western-backed efforts to end the fighting. On Saturday, President Hosni Mubarak met Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, who urged Israel and his Hamas rivals to accept the plan “without hesitation.”
A Hamas delegation was also due to hold talks with Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.
Mubarak is calling for an immediate truce, opening Gaza’s border crossings, preventing arms smuggling and a call for Palestinians to resume reconciliation talks.
Abbas stressed he wanted an international force in Gaza rather than controlling traffic on the Egyptian side of the border, as suggested by European countries.
But Meshaal said Hamas “will consider any international troops imposed on our people as an occupation force” and Hamas and other groups have said they will oppose any measure that hinders the armed “resistance.”
Both Hamas and Israel have already brushed aside a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate truce in the territory.
The conflict has sparked worldwide pro-Palestinian demonstrations, including rallies in Europe that drew tens of thousands of protesters.
Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians have been killed in combat or in rocket attacks since the operation began, as Palestinian militants have fired more than 600 rockets, some of them penetrating deeper than ever inside Israel.