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Israel Continues Ground Offensive in Gaza as Death Toll Mounts

Thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks battled Hamas militants in Gaza on Sunday. At least 39 Palestinians were killed as families fled battlefield towns.

Israeli infantry soldiers enter Gaza from Israel on a combat mission on Sunday, Jan. 4

Israeli infantry soldiers enter Gaza from Israel on a combat mission on Sunday, Jan. 4

Continuing the second stage of a massive offensive against militants in Gaza, Israeli troops pushed further into the Strip on Sunday, where they fought Palestinian gunmen and cut the enclave in two, deploying south of Gaza City and seizing control of a major traffic artery.

The offensive has begun to claim civilian lives. Palestinian medics said the ground operation has killed at least 39 Palestinians, including a mother and her four children. Some 150 have been wounded. Most of Gaza is now without electricity and food supplies are said to be running low.

Israel has said one of its soldiers was killed and at least 30 wounded, one critically and two seriously, since the army first moved into the Gaza Strip on Saturday night.

The Israeli military spokesman dismissed as untrue militants' claims that they killed nine Israeli soldiers. Another military official said reports that an Israeli soldier had been captured were not accurate.

Israeli tank

Israeli tanks are backing up the ground offensive

The official, speaking to the DPA news service on condition of anonymity, said that most of the resistance the Israelis had encountered so far came from mortars, although other Israeli spokesmen said close-quarters combat has taken place.

"We are operating in a very challenging area that has been well-prepared by Hamas in order to repel attacks," the official said.

Hamas has vowed to make Gaza a "cemetery" for Israeli troops.

Civilians in Gaza

Residents in Gaza said more than half of the enclave appeared to be occupied by the Israelis, who were taking up positions outside major towns, and avoiding entering densely populated areas.

Gaza City turned into a virtual ghost town on Sunday as shops closed and most people stayed inside their homes.

The International Committee of the Red Cross says both parties are obliged under international humanitarian law to avoid attacks on civilians and public buildings.

Pierre Kraehenbuehl, the agency's director of operations, said Sunday he was worried about the growing number of civilians killed and injured and hospitals being damaged. The death toll in the Gaza Strip has risen to over 512 since Dec. 27 as Israel's ground forces pushed deeper into the territory. Gaza officials have said at least 31 civilians were among the dead.

Continuing attacks

The Israeli air force continued its attacks alongside the ground offensive, hitting over 45 targets overnight and on Sunday, including tunnels, weapons storage facilities, and a number of mortar shell launching areas, a statement by the Israeli military said.

Israeli infantry soldiers take position on the border to Gaza

Israeli infantry soldiers take position on the border to Gaza

One of the raids also killed two senior Hamas militants: Hussam Hamdan, held responsible for the firing of long-range Grad missiles toward southern Israeli cities; and Mohammed Hilo, who was in charge of Hamas "special forces" in Khan Younis.

The Israeli official said that although the Israeli ground incursion was proceeding as planned, it would not be a rapid operation which would end in days.

Israeli President Shimon Peres on Sunday rejected the possibility of a cease-fire but said Israel does not intend to occupy Gaza.

"We don't intend neither to occupy Gaza nor to crush Hamas, but to crush terror. And Hamas needs a real and serious lesson. They are now getting it," Peres said in an interview on US television.

Israel : World 'understands'

On Sunday, an Israeli government spokesperson said that the international community understands Israel's reasons for launching the offensive.

"There is on an international level much understanding of the fact that we are exercising our legitimate right to self-defense against attacks perpetrated from the territory of Gaza by Hamas terrorists," said Avi Pazner in an interview with French radio Europe 1.

Demonstration in Australia

Protesters in Australia and other countries have demanded an end to the Israeli attacks on Gaza

He pointed out that the EU's Czech presidency had described Israel's ground operation as "more defensive than offensive," although France, which has just relinquished the EU presidency, had condemned the ground action.

But on Sunday, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said that spokesman Jiri Frantisek Potuznik, who made the comment, had blundered.

"It was his personal mistake," he told Czech television. "Unfortunately it was a very serious mistake."

The Czech foreign ministry has called "for the facilitation of humanitarian aid to the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, and … for the establishment of a cease-fire."

Protests have been taking place around the world, many calling for Israel to stop the attacks.

But several thousand demonstrators waved Israeli flags and sang Hebrew hymns in Paris Sunday to show support for Israel in its military offensive in Gaza, a day after a huge pro-Palestinian rally there.

In consultations late Saturday night, the UN Security Council failed to even agree on the working of a statement on the conflict. The United States has given its strong backing to Israel.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum has condemned the Security Council action as "a farce" under American domination.

But Deputy US Ambassador to the UN, Alejandro Wolff, said: "The efforts we are making internationally are designed to establish a sustainable, durable ceasefire that's respected by all. And that means no more rocket attacks."

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