Saturday, January 3, 2009

Israel destroys Hamas homes, flattens Gaza mosque


GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel bombed a mosque it claimed was used to store weapons and destroyed homes of more than a dozen Hamas operatives Friday, but under international pressure, the government allowed hundreds of Palestinians with foreign passports to leave besieged Gaza.

Israel has been building up artillery, armor and infantry on Gaza's border in an indication the week-old air assault against Gaza's Hamas rulers could imminently expand with a ground incursion. At the same time, however, international pressure is building for a cease-fire that would block more fighting.

"There is no water, no electricity, no medicine. It's hard to survive. Gaza is destroyed," said Jawaher Haggi, a 14-year-old U.S. citizen who said her uncle was killed in an airstrike when he tried to pick up some medicine for her cancer-stricken father. She said her father died several days later.

Israel launched the aerial campaign Saturday in a bid to halt weeks of intensifying Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. It has dealt a heavy blow to Hamas, but has failed to halt the rockets. New attacks Friday struck apartment buildings in a southern Israeli city but no serious injuries were reported.

Before the airstrikes Friday, Israel's military called at least some of the houses to warn residents of an impending attack. In some cases, it also fired a sound bomb to warn away civilians before flattening the homes with missiles, Palestinians and Israeli officials said.

After destroying Hamas' security compounds, Israel turned its attention to the group's leadership. In airstrike after airstrike, warplanes hit some 20 houses believed to belong to Hamas militants and members of other armed groups, Palestinians said.

They said the Israelis either warned nearby residents by phone or fired a warning missile to try to reduce civilian casualties. Israeli planes also dropped leaflets east of Gaza giving a confidential phone number and e-mail address for people to report locations of rocket squads. Residents stepped over the leaflets.

Israel used similar tactics during its 2006 war against Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Most of the targeted homes Friday belonged to activist leaders and appeared to be empty at the time, but one man was killed in a strike in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Separate airstrikes killed five other Palestinians — including a young teenage boy east of Gaza City and three children — two brothers and their cousin — who were playing in southern Gaza, according to Health Ministry official Moaiya Hassanain.

More than 400 Gazans have been killed and some 1,700 have been wounded in the Israeli campaign, Gaza health officials said. The number of combatants and civilians killed is unclear, but Hamas has said around half of the dead are members of its security forces and the U.N. has said more than 60 are civilians, 34 of them children.

Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have also died in the rocket attacks, which have reached deeper into Israel than ever before, bringing an eighth of Israel's population of 7 million within rocket range.

The mosque destroyed Friday was known as a Hamas stronghold, and the army said it was used to store weapons. It also was identified with Nizar Rayan, the Hamas militant leader killed Thursday when Israel dropped a one-ton bomb on his home.

That airstrike killed 20 people, including all four of Rayan's wives and 10 of his 12 children. The strike on Rayan's home obliterated the four-story apartment building and peeled off the walls of others around it, carving out a vast field of rubble.

Israel's military said the homes of Hamas leaders are being used to store missiles and other weapons, and the hit on Rayan's house triggered secondary explosions from the stockpile there.
Israeli defense officials said the military had called Rayan's home and fired a warning missile before destroying the building. That was impossible to confirm. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss military tactics.

Israel has targeted Hamas leaders many times in the past, but halted the practice during a six-month truce that expired last month. Most of Hamas' leaders went into hiding at the start of Israel's offensive.
Israel allowed about 300 Palestinians who hold passports from other countries to cross from Gaza into Israel so they could leave the country. Military liaison officer Maj. Aviad Zilberman said the Israelis had approved the requests following pleas from foreign governments.
The Palestinians who left hold citizenship from the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Norway, Kazakhstan and other countries.

Fear of Israeli attacks led to sparse turnout at Friday's communal prayers at mosques throughout Gaza. But thousands of people attended a memorial service for Rayan. Throngs of people prayed over the rubble of his home and the destroyed mosque nearby.

An imam delivered his sermon over a car loudspeaker as the bodies of Rayan and other family members were covered in green Hamas flags. Explosions from Israeli airstrikes and the sound of warplanes overhead could be heard in the distance.

Following the prayers, a sea of mourners marched with the bodies, with many people reaching out to touch and kiss them.

"The Palestinian resistance will not forget and will not forgive," said Hamas lawmaker Mushir Masri, calling the assassination a "serious" development. "The resistance's response will be very painful."

A rocket barrage hit the Israeli city of Ashkelon early Friday. Two rockets hit apartment buildings, lightly wounding two Israelis, police said. Sirens warning Israelis to take cover when military radar picks up an incoming rocket have helped reduce casualties in recent days.
The military said aircraft destroyed the three rocket launchers used to fire at Ashkelon.

While keeping up the military pressure, Israel also appears to be offering an opening for the intense diplomatic efforts, saying it would consider a halt to the fighting if international monitors were brought in to track compliance with any truce with Hamas.

Concerned about protests, Israeli police stepped up security and restricted access to Friday prayers at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque, barring all males under 50 from entering.
Jerusalem's mufti, Mohammed Hussein, said a mere 3,000 Palestinians attended Friday's prayers because of the tough restrictions.

"We condemn these measures, and we believe they contradict the principle of freedom of worship," Hussein said.

Those prayers ended without incident, though in a nearby east Jerusalem neighborhood, youths clashed with anti-riot police on horseback. No injuries were reported.

Thousands demonstrated in the West Bank in solidarity with Gazans. In Ramallah, Palestinian police loyal to Hamas' moderate rival, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, barred protesters from chanting pro-Hamas slogans or waving Hamas banners. Three Hamas activists were arrested.

In Nablus, about 3,000 Hamas supporters protested, singing songs and calling for an attack against Israelis in Jerusalem.

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