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Israel Continues Offensive as EU Envoy Seeks Truce

Israel on Monday tightened its grip on Gaza with continued air strikes and ground battles, even as a top Hamas leader claimed "victory is coming." A European envoy meanwhile hopes to broker peace.

An Israeli tank fires a missile

Israel has said its enemy is Hamas, not the Palestinian people

Israeli ground troops took control of areas from which Palestinian militants have been firing rockets at southern Israel. Their advance sparked clashes with local Hamas fighters.

According to Palestinian officials, at least 50 Palestinians have been killed since the ground offensive began Saturday, while more than 200 have been injured.

Since Israel nine days ago launched its Operation "Cast Lead" -- aimed at curbing seven years of rocket and mortar attacks against its southern towns and villages -- more than 520 Palestinians have been killed and at least 2,500 injured.

A Hamas official said Monday that a delegation of the militant group would attend talks in Egypt, news agency Reuters reported.

French condemnation

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

French President Nicolas Sarkozy says diplomacy can end the conflict

Also on Monday, French President Nicolas Sarkozy traveled to the Middle East for talks in Egypt, the West Bank and Israel aimed at achieving a diplomatic solution, before engaging in further discussions in Syria and Lebanon on Tuesday.

In an interview to be published Monday the French president told three Lebanese newspapers that France denounced the Israeli ground offensive.

But he added that Hamas bore "a heavy responsibility" for the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.

"I want to say again here that we condemn with the same firmness (Hamas') continuing rocket fire, which is an unacceptable provocation," said Sarkozy.

Steinmeier: Arms must be 'controlled'

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Sunday that Israel's ground offensive had effectively nullified any hopes of an early cessation of fighting.

He called for speedy efforts to ensure that "the dramatic humanitarian situation" in Gaza did not deteriorate and to allow urgently needed relief supplies to be distributed to the population.

At the same time, Steinmeier said steps should be introduced that would provide permanent guarantees for the security of Israel.

Palestinian militants from Hamas ride on a truck with their weapons

Steinmeier says there must be an end to arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip

It was not enough for Hamas militants to cease firing missiles at the Jewish state, he said. There was also a need for a reliable control mechanism at crossing points with Gaza to halt arms smuggling, he added.

War must stop, EU mission says

An EU delegation to the Middle East -- including Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner and Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt -- also took a hard stance Sunday against both Hamas and Israeli attacks, calling for an immediate end to hostilities.

After meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul Gheit, Schwarzenberg said Palestinian "rocket attacks and on the other side the shelling and the bombing of the Gaza Strip" had to stop, though he offered no concrete solution to bring about a ceasefire.

Kouchner, meanwhile, highlighted the failure of the UN Security Council to agree on a statement against the hostilities as a sign that the international community was powerless to stop the cross-border attacks of both warring parties.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, right, reacts as he arrives with Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos and Greek Foreign Minister Theodora Bakoyannis for a urgent meeting of the European Union's foreign ministers to discuss the crisis in Gaza

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, right, says there is no military solution

"This war must completely stop, everyone knows it. We know what has to be done but no one can do it," he told a media conference in Cairo.

Call for a Palestinian state

"I think that there will be no military solution but the protagonists must both be convinced of this.

"Unfortunately our efforts have been unsuccessful and there is ... an unbearable humanitarian situation," Kouchner said. "In all wars there is a humanitarian crisis and certainly more than imaginable in Gaza.

"We have to return to the political process, the Palestinian parties must speak to each other and there must be a Palestinian state."

Kouchner said that Hamas made "a deliberate choice not only to resume rocket fire but also to refuse to meet" the rival Fatah faction of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas for Egyptian-mediated reconciliation talks.

Israeli ground offensive

On Sunday, the Israeli army disconnected the north, including Gaza City, from the southern region.

An Israeli soldier directs a tank at a staging area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip

Reports say some 40 Israeli tanks are moving towards the southern city of Khan Younis

Hamas, which has kept one Israeli soldier captive in Gaza since June 2005 as a bargaining chip to free Palestinian militants from Israeli prisons, has threatened to use the ground offensive to capture more Israeli soldiers.

Israel Radio reported Monday that the Israeli army foiled one such attempt by Hamas fighters the previous day.

At least five Israeli soldiers were moderately injured overnight, Israel Radio reported, and an unknown number of Palestinians. One Israeli soldier was killed and some 31 injured in the fighting Sunday.

Four Israelis have also died by Palestinian rocket attacks since the Israeli operation began Dec. 27.

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