Jan 9, 2009

World - Gaza violence rages on despite UN cease-fire call

Matti Friedman & Ibrahim Barzak

JERUSALEM – The U.N. Security Council called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza, but an intense bombardment of missiles from Israeli jets and helicopters early Friday and a barrage of Hamas rockets indicated there may be no quick end to the fighting.

The Security Council resolution was approved Thursday night by a 14-0 vote, with the United States abstaining. The resolution "stresses the urgency of and calls for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza."

Israel and Hamas were not parties to the council vote and it is now up to them to stop the fighting. But a Hamas spokesman said the Islamic militant group "is not interested" in the cease-fire because it was not consulted and the resolution did not meet its minimum demands.

Israel's top leaders were set Friday to discuss the cease-fire — or a possible expansion of the ground offensive.

"Israel has acted, is acting and will act only according to its own considerations, the security of its citizens and its right to self defense," Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said in a statement from her office ahead of the meeting.

One Israeli airstrike killed two Hamas militants and another unidentified man, while another flattened a five-story building in northern Gaza, killing at least seven people, including an infant, Hamas security officials said. By mid-morning, 13 Palestinians had been killed.

In all, Israeli aircraft struck more than 30 targets before dawn, and constant explosions continued after first light. Friday's deaths in Gaza pushed the Palestinian death toll to about 760 in the nearly two-week-old conflict, at least half of them civilians, according to Gaza health officials. Thirteen Israelis have died.

Israel launched its assault on Dec. 27 in an attempt to halt years of rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled territory.

Despite the devastating offensive, Hamas continued to bombard residents of southern Israel. Rockets hit Friday morning across southern Israel, including in and around Beersheba and Ashkelon, which — like other cities within rocket range of Gaza — have largely been paralyzed since the fighting began.

Israel called up thousands of reserve troops earlier in the week, and they are now ready for action.

The Security Council action came hours after a U.N. agency suspended food deliveries to Gaza, and the Red Cross accused Israel of blocking medical assistance after forces fired on aid workers. It also followed concerns of a wider conflict after militants in Lebanon fired rockets into northern Israel early Thursday, though the border has been quiet since.

The United States abstained from the Security Council vote even though it helped hammer out the resolution's text along with Arab nations that have ties to Hamas and the Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied territories.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. "fully supports" the resolution but abstained "to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation" with Israel and Hamas, also aimed at achieving a cease-fire.

The resolution expresses "grave concern" at the escalating violence and the deepening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and emphasizes the need to open all border crossings and achieve a lasting solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

It also calls on U.N. member states "to intensify efforts to provide arrangements and guarantees in Gaza in order to sustain a durable cease-fire and calm, including to prevent illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition and to ensure the sustained reopening" of border crossings.

In addition, the resolution "condemns all violence and hostilities directed against civilians" and calls for "unimpeded" humanitarian access to Gaza."

Israel has paused its operations for three-hour periods in the last two days to allow aid to reach civilians.

Osama Hamdan, a Hamas envoy to Lebanon, told the al-Arabiya satellite channel that the group "is not interested in it because it does not meet the demands of the movement."

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the U.N. failed to consider the interests of the Palestinian people. "This resolution doesn't mean that the war is over," he told the al-Jazeera satellite television network. "We call on the Palestinian fighters to mobilize and be ready to face the offensive, and we urge the Arab masses to carry on with their angry protests."

Following the resolution, Egypt was expected to take the lead in persuading Israel and Hamas to accept it. Israeli representatives returned home from talks in Cairo Thursday, and Hamas was due to send political leaders to the Egyptian capital on Saturday.

Israel's government says any cease-fire must guarantee an end to rocket fire and arms smuggling into Gaza. During a six-month cease-fire that ended with the current operation, Hamas is thought to have used tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border to smuggle in the medium-range rockets it is now using to hit deeper than ever inside Israel.

Hamas has said it won't accept any agreement that does not include the full opening Gaza's blockaded border crossings. Israel is unlikely to agree to that demand, as it would allow Hamas to strengthen its hold on the territory which it violently seized in June 2007.

With Israeli troops now in control of many of the open areas used by militants to launch rockets, gunman have continued shooting from inside populated neighborhoods.

The conflict has left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza increasingly desperate for food, water, fuel and medical assistance, and the situation was expected to worsen as humanitarian efforts fall victim to the fighting.

One of the dead Thursday was a Ukrainian woman, the first foreigner to die in the fighting, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain. He said the woman was married to a Palestinian doctor who trained in Ukraine and returned with her to Gaza. Her 2-year-old son was also killed in the tank shelling east of Gaza City, he said.

AP writers Edith M. Lederer and John Heilprin at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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