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Israeli tanks roll into Gaza to crush Hamas
Marie Colvin and Uzi Mahnaimi -Times Online January 3, 2008
Columns of Israeli tanks and ground forces roared across the border into northern Gaza under cover of darkness in the first step of a full-scale land invasion.
Their mission was to destroy rocket launch facilities and capture or kill the Hamas leadership, the militant Islamists who had seized control of the territory 18 months ago.
The incursion, on day eight of the war in Gaza, followed hours of artillery barrages aimed at clearing the way for the 10,000 Israeli troops who had massed on the border. They entered Gaza at several points along the border. Tracer fire could be seen and Israeli television reported fierce clashes.
The troops advanced on the heavily armed refugee camp at Jabaliya, a Hamas stronghold.
Israel announced a call-up of tens of thousands more reservists. Tzipi Livni, foreign minister and candidate for prime minister, threatened further escalation if Hamas hit back.
“The moment they fire we will respond with great force,” she said. “It could be that several operations will be needed.”
Israeli military officials said their mission was to eliminate the rocket launch units which have spread terror across southern Israel.
“The objective at this stage is to destroy the terrorist infr-structure of Hamas in . . . order to greatly reduce the quantity of rockets fired at Israel,” said Major Avital Leibovich.
Officials indicated that troops would remain in Gaza for a “lengthy operation”.
Earlier the barrage of 155mm shells was concentrated on the northern, largely agricultural area of Gaza, shaking homes and refugee camps with explosions that could be heard miles away. Flares were dropped to illuminate the border zone.
Inside Gaza, Israeli special forces were believed to be tracking down leading figures in the military leadership of Hamas. Israeli military planners would like to “behead” the organisation without becoming entangled in a prolonged occupation.
Leaflets dropped earlier in the day over Gaza City and the border areas urged Palestinians to flee their homes. “For your own safety, you are required to leave the area immediately,” stated the warning from the Israel Defence Forces.
An Israeli air strike yesterday killed Abu Zakaria al-Jamal, a senior Hamas military commander.
Later, in one of at least 30 air strikes on Gaza, 13 Palestinians, including children, died when an Israeli jet bombed a mosque in Beit Lahiya.
Hamas yesterday launched more than two dozen rockets, one hitting the Israeli port of Ashdod, setting a house on fire.
Israel launched its ground offensive because despite more than 750 air attacks last week, it had failed to stop the rockets. Officials believe they have a limited time frame for the attack as international pressure is growing to stop the fighting.
Inside Gaza there were desperate scenes with no bomb shelters and few places to flee. Food, water and medical supplies were all running short for the strip’s 1.5m residents, whose access to the outside world has been cut off by an Israeli-imposed siege.
The United Nations said that 70% of the population rely on its food aid and its warehouses were empty.
Downing Street called for a ceasefire as thousands of protesters converged on White-hall yesterday. Other protests were held throughout the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, is due to visit Tel Aviv early this week with a ceasefire proposal.
President George W Bush called on Hamas to halt its rocket attacks.
During the Israeli army’s Operation Cast Lead, more than 460 Palestinians have been killed, at least a quarter of them civilians, the UN said. More than 2,100 have also been wounded.
Meanwhile, Hamas has still launched more than 400 rockets, killing four Israelis.