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Israel Pounds Gaza, Striking At Symbols Of Hamas’ Power

By Alexandra Zavis and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY — Israel pummeled the Gaza Strip from the air, land and sea on Tuesday, hitting government buildings, a television station and other symbols of the Hamas militant group’s power in the coastal enclave.

It was one of the most intense bombardments of Israel’s 22-day operation to dismantle the group’s rocket-launching capabilities and destroy a network of tunnels used by Palestinian militants to funnel weapons and fighters into Israel.

Orange flares and crashing explosions lit up the night sky. The pounding came after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country “must be prepared for a prolonged campaign.”

The local Health Ministry said more than 100 Palestinians were killed Tuesday, pushing the death toll for the campaign past 1,200.

Israeli officials and news reports said five of the country’s soldiers were killed the previous day when heavily armed militants emerged from a tunnel near a kibbutz called Nahal Oz and fired at them with anti-tank missiles. The country has lost 53 soldiers, along with two civilians and a foreign worker.

Israel’s military said its forces targeted more than 70 sites in Gaza overnight, including four weapons storage sites and a rocket launcher concealed in or near mosques.

The strikes destroyed the vacant home of Hamas’ top political leader in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, and damaged offices of the group’s Al Aqsa television station. Also destroyed was the Ministry of Finance, which Israel says is used to fund and manage Hamas’ “terror activities.”

A fuel tank supplying Gaza’s only power plant was hit, igniting a fire that shut down the facility and sent a huge column of black smoke billowing into the sky, local news reports said.

Photo: Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/MCT

Israel Resumes Strikes On Gaza After Holiday Lull

By Alexandra Zavis and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY — A fragile holiday lull in fighting in the Gaza Strip on Monday was punctuated by Israeli airstrikes and a rocket launch by Palestinian militants in the wake of a call by the U.N. Security Council for an unconditional humanitarian truce.

On the 21st day of the conflict, Israel’s Cabinet was meeting to weigh the next military and political moves. In Gaza, the relative calm coincided with the start of the Eid al-Fitr, one of the most important festivals of the Muslim calendar, marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan.

The United States and other mediators had hoped to forge a durable cease-fire prior to the three-day holiday, but efforts over the past week failed to bring the two sides together. Hamas has insisted on a lifting of a years-long blockade on Gaza enforced by Israel and Egypt; Israel demands that its troops be allowed to continue destroying Hamas-dug tunnels while a truce is in effect.

Across Gaza, Eid commemorations were muted by the death and destruction visited on the crowded coastal strip during the last three weeks. With more than 1,000 people, mainly civilians, dead and entire neighborhoods lying in ruins, a normally festive time was marked by fear and anxiety.

At a school-turned-refugee center in Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, displaced Palestinian families overflowed classrooms and open-air corridors. Clothes hung from window sills and railings; bedding and mattresses were stacked high.

Sixteen members of the Zani clan were squeezed into a single classroom with several other families. They had fled their homes in northern Gaza, where Israeli troops were conducting intensive searches for Palestinian militants’ “attack” tunnels, meant to funnel assailants into Israel, and rocket-launching sites.

“Today we woke up at 6 a.m., not because the kids were playing, but because we heard shelling,” said a young mother, Amani. Her children, she said, asked why Eid was not being celebrated as usual with sweets, big meals, and new clothing.

“I told them Eid had been postponed because there were a lot of martyrs,” she said. “A lot of people here have lost family members — we can’t celebrate when they are grieving.”

The Israeli military said mortar rounds were fired at its forces in several locations within Gaza, and that at least 12 projectiles were directed at Israel on Monday. In south-central Gaza, heavy exchanges of fire were reported between Israeli forces and Hamas militants in the vicinity of Khan Younis.

Meanwhile, Palestinian rescue workers pulled several more bodies from the rubble in Khuza, a village east of Khan Younis that has been a focus of the clashes in recent days. The deaths raised the Palestinian death toll to at least 1,044, the Health Ministry said.

Meanwhile, strained relations between Israel and the United States appeared to be affecting both cease-fire talks and the coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a phone call with the Israeli leader on Sunday, President Barack Obama reportedly used unusually blunt language to urge an immediate cessation of hostilities.

The tenor of that conversation, together with a growing international outcry over Palestinian civilian casualties, brought an angry reaction from some in Israel.

“The last time we listened to the U.S. and allowed Hamas to participate in elections, Hamas took over the entire Gaza Strip and we got a terror entity there,” lawmaker Zeev Elkin, chairman of the Knesset’s foreign affairs and defense committee, told the news website Ynet.

Netanyahu also had a tense-sounding exchange by phone on Monday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who has played an active role in mediation efforts. The prime minister’s office said Netanyahu told the secretary-general that the U.N. cease-fire call takes into account “the needs of a murderous terror organization that attacks Israeli civilians, but offers no answers to Israel’s security needs.”

This story has been updated.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Zavis reported from Gaza City and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem. Staff writer Laura King in Cairo contributed to this report.

Photo: Los Angeles Times/MCT/Carolyn Cole\

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U.N. Shelter In Gaza Shelled, Killing At Least 15; Cease-Fire Elusive

By Alexandra Zavis and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

GAZA CITY — With a cease-fire accord remaining elusive despite intense diplomatic efforts, a U.N. shelter in northern Gaza was shelled on Thursday, causing “multiple deaths and injuries,” according to a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.

At least 15 people were killed and scores hurt when a school compound in Beit Hanoun, designated as a haven for the displaced, was bombarded by Israeli forces amid heavy fighting with Palestinian militants, a Gaza health official said.

Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. Refugee and Works Agency, or UNRWA, tweeted that the precise coordinates of the shelter had been relayed to Israeli forces. The strike on the compound was not immediately confirmed by the Israeli military.

Earlier, the Palestinian death toll in Gaza rose above 720 in overnight and early-morning bombardment. Meanwhile, militants fired a flurry of rockets into Israeli territory, with most either falling harmlessly or intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system.

In the 17th day of the confrontation between Israeli forces and the militant group Hamas, regional mediators continued to work toward a halt to the fighting.

Secretary of State John F. Kerry, back in Cairo after a day of shuttle diplomacy in Israel and the West Bank, was conferring Thursday with Egyptian officials, according to Egyptian media reports.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond, in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, expressed hopes for a speedy truce. While acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself, Hammond said his government was “gravely concerned by the ongoing heavy level” of civilian deaths and injuries in Gaza.

“We want to see a cease-fire quickly agreed,” he said.

Netanyahu said Israel was trying to minimize civilian casualties, but declared that “we cannot give our attackers immunity or impunity.” He did not mention the efforts to strike a truce.

Israel said it had detained dozens of suspected militants overnight in Gaza, and Israeli media carried images of the captured men in their underwear being marched toward or across the frontier, bound for a military detention center in southern Israel.

Israeli media reports also cited military sources as saying that 500 militants affiliated with Hamas or other Islamist armed groups have been killed since the start of the offensive. However, the United Nations and others have estimated that up to three-quarters of the dead are civilians, many of them women and children.

For a third day on Thursday, many international flights to and from Tel Aviv were canceled, after a rocket fell Tuesday near Ben Gurion International Airport. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration late Wednesday lifted a ban on American carriers flying into or out of Ben Gurion, and European aviation safety authorities followed suit on Thursday. However, many of the day’s arrivals had already been scrapped.

Israel’s summer tourism season, already dampened by the outbreak of fighting, has been hit hard by the curtailed air service, and industry officials, including those in Israel’s high-tech sector, have voiced concerns about long-term economic damage. Hamas has trumpeted the flight suspensions as an important military success.

While most of Israel’s casualties have been military, with 32 troops killed to date, three civilians have died on the Israeli side of the frontier. After a Thai farm worker was killed Wednesday by a mortar in the fields of a farm community close to Gaza, Thailand urged Israel to transfer some 4,000 of its nationals to safer areas and provide better protection for them.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Zavis reported from Gaza City and special correspondent Sobelman reported from Jerusalem. Times staff writer Laura King contributed to this report from Cairo.

AFP Photo/Jack Guez

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Casualties Mount As Israel Presses Its Ground Offensive In Gaza

By Alexandra Zavis and Batsheva Sobelman, Los Angeles Times

ASHKELON, Israel — Thousands of Israeli troops, backed by tanks, warplanes, and gunboats, pressed deeper into the Gaza Strip on Friday as Palestinian militants returned fire with rockets and mortar rounds and terrified residents hunkered down in their homes.

Israel launched the ground offensive late Thursday after 10 days of aerial bombardments failed to halt the rocket fire raining down on Israeli cities and towns from the coastal enclave, which is controlled by the Hamas militant group.

Heavy fighting was reported overnight in the northern Gaza cities of Beit Hanoun and Beit Lahia, as well as around Khan Younis and Rafah to the south. Loud explosions continued throughout the day, as ambulances cruised the streets searching for victims.

At least 28 Palestinians have been killed since the ground operation began, according to Gaza health officials quoted by the Maan news agency. They include three siblings from 13 to 15 who died when their house in Beit Lahia was shelled. A separate attack killed nine members of an extended family in Khan Younis, the news service reported.

The Israeli military said 17 militants were killed since the ground operation was launched, and 13 others surrendered and were taken for questioning. An Israeli soldier was also killed and two were injured, the military said. The cause of the death was under investigation, but Israeli media reported that friendly fire was suspected.

The sharp escalation in the fighting came despite growing international pressure on the two sides to suspend hostilities that have claimed more than 260 lives, most of them Palestinian civilians.

Israel accepted an Egyptian cease-fire proposal this week that called on the parties to wind down the fighting and send negotiators to Cairo to hammer out a more permanent truce.

But Hamas officials did not accept the agreement, saying the militia won’t back down until its key demands are met. They include the lifting of a crippling blockade on the impoverished territory, the reopening of border crossings into Israel and Egypt, and the release of members jailed in the West Bank during recent sweeps spurred by the slaying of three Israeli teens.

The Israeli ground campaign appeared to be limited in scope, targeting a network of tunnels that Hamas and its allies use to smuggle weapons and fighters into Israel.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters he had instructed the military to prepare for the possibility of a “considerable expansion of the ground operation.”

“We chose to embark on this operation after exhausting the other options and with the understanding that without the operation, we could pay a much higher price,” Netanyahu said as he headed into a Cabinet meeting Friday.

Hamas spokesmen called it a dangerous decision and said they were prepared to fight back. Scores of rockets were fired Friday into southern and central Israel.

As morning broke, families living in Gaza’s frontier areas piled into donkey carts and fled for the interior, squeezing in with relatives or joining some 22,000 people sheltering at United Nations-run schools and other facilities.

Others, however, were too afraid to leave their homes.

“Where to go?” lamented Sharhabeel Mahmoum, a 37-year-old pharmacist and father of four reached by telephone in Beit Lahia. “As long as Israeli planes are in the air, there is no safe place.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Zavis reported from Ashkelon and special correspondent Sobelman from Jerusalem. Times photographer Carolyn Cole in Gaza City contributed to the report.

AFP Photo / Thomas Coex

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