Israel intensifies Gaza offensive as death toll rises to over 100

Monday, March 03 2008 @ 08:22 AM Central Standard Time Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended peace negotiations with Israel on Sunday, demanding it end a Gaza offensive that has killed more than 100 Palestinians, many of them civilians.

Israel claimed it was acting in self-defense in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip to curb constant cross-border rocket attacks by militants and threatened to intensify its ground and air campaign despite allegations it was using excessive force.

“Abbas had ordered the suspension of negotiations … until (Israeli) aggression is stopped,” a senior aide to the Palestinian leader said in the West Bank city of Ramallah. But he stopped short of declaring dead the US-brokered statehood talks opposed by Hamas who seized control of the Gaza Strip from his Fatah movement in June. Arye Mekel, spokesman for Israel’s chief negotiator, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, said Abbas’s decision was a mistake and expressed hope the talks would resume “in the very near future.”

A 21-month-old Palestinian girl, two other civilians and three militants were killed in the latest fighting in the Gaza Strip, raising the Palestinian death toll in five days of bloodshed to more than 100, medical officials said. Anti-Israeli demonstrations erupted in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli forces confronting stone-throwers near the town of Hebron shot dead a 14-year-old boy wearing a Hamas headband, witnesses said.

Nine rockets slammed into southern Israel, wounding four people, Israeli ambulance workers said. “Israel has no intention of stopping the fight against the terrorist organizations even for a minute,” Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet.

Earlier, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused Israel of using “excessive force.” He demanded a halt to air and ground attacks that killed 61 people on Saturday, the bloodiest day for Palestinians since the 1980s, and militants’ rocket salvoes.

EU president Slovenia condemned Israel’s attacks as disproportionate and violating international law. The presidency statement also called for an immediate halt to the rocket fire.

“With all due respect … no one has the right to preach morality to Israel for employing its elementary right of self-defense,” Olmert said.

Abbas designated Sunday a day of mourning. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to meet Abbas and Olmert this week. Washington has said it hoped Israeli-Palestinian talks can lead to a statehood deal before President George W. Bush leaves office in January.

One Israeli has been killed by a rocket launched from Gaza since the current surge in bloodshed began. Hamas has said such salvoes would stop if Israel abandoned operations in the Gaza Strip and raids against militants in the occupied West Bank.

“We are acting to hit the Hamas infrastructure … the final target is to bring an end to the firing of Qassams,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said about the crude rockets.

“This will not be achieved in the next two days, but we will continue the activity with all our strength. And we need to prepare for escalation, because the big ground operation is real and tangible,” Barak said.

Meeting in emergency session, the UN Security Council said it was deeply concerned about civilian deaths in southern Israel and the Gaza Strip and urged a cessation of violence.

“We are capable of sustaining the fight and tolerating (attacks) beyond the expectations of the enemy,” said Abu Ubaida, spokesman of Hamas’s Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades.

Olmert has been under pressure from some of his cabinet members to launch a broader offensive in the Gaza Strip, especially after militants began firing longer-range Katyusha rockets at Ashkelon, a city of 120,000 people.

But Israeli officials have spoken publicly of the heavy loss of life such a campaign could cause on both sides. Two Israeli soldiers were killed in fighting with Gaza militants on Saturday.

Across the Gaza Strip, families erected traditional mourning tents for the dead. In southern Israel, people went about their everyday lives, poised to rush for shelter at the sound of alarms that activate about 15 seconds before a rocket hits.

The offensive has taken Israeli troops deeper into the Gaza Strip and in larger numbers than at any time since Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the territory in 2005, 38 years after its capture.

Turkey condemns Israeli attacks in Gaza

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan yesterday accused Israel of using “disproportionate force” in its attacks in the Gaza Strip that have killed over 100 Palestinians in two days. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said in a speech that the attacks are killing “children and civilians” and that they can have “no humanitarian justification.” Turkey is Israel’s closest ally in the Muslim world and has offered to mediate for Middle East peace. But Erdoğan said Sunday that Israel was rejecting a “diplomatic” solution to the dispute.

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