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Israel's Pounding of Gaza Enters Third Day

By Reuters, Robert Berger (VOA-Jerusalem), & Ha'

Israel pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip from the air Monday morning and prepared for a possible land invasion after killing at least 298 Palestinians in two days of attacks.

Israel said the campaign that began on Saturday was a response to almost daily rocket and mortar fire that intensified after Hamas, the Islamist terrorist group in charge of the enclave that Israel quit in 2005, ended a six-month ceasefire a week ago.

Israel stepped up air strikes after dark on Sunday, destroying a laboratory building at the Islamic University in Gaza, a significant cultural symbol, Hamas said. Israel has accused Hamas of using the facilities to develop explosives.

During the first two days of the assault, terrorists fired about 150 rockets and mortars at Israel, the army said, less than had been expected. Two rockets struck near the port of Ashdod, 30 km (18 miles) from Gaza, causing no casualties.

The attacks enraged Arabs across the Middle East, where protesters burned Israeli and U.S. flags to press for a stronger response from their leaders to Israel's attack on Gaza.

Israeli tanks deployed on the edge of the Gaza Strip, poised to enter the densely-populated enclave of 1.5 million Palestinians. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's cabinet approved a call-up of 6,700 reservists, a government official said.

"The cost of calling up 6,700 reservists approved Sunday by the cabinet is over NIS 3 million a day," a senior official in the Finance Ministry said.

"The IDF will need to cover any operations of up to a week from its own sources. The funding for an operation lasting longer than a week will be provided based on a cabinet decision."

The Tax Authority has set up its own center in Sderot to deal with compensation issues, and the Defense Ministry notifies it of all damage.In the past three years, residents of the region near Gaza have been compensated to the tune of NIS 143 million for Kassam damage: NIS 73 million for direct damage and NIS 70 million for indirect losses.

More than half the factories in the area surrounding the Gaza Strip operated Sunday, despite instructions from the Home Front Command to close down some 80 plants within 4.5 kilometers from the Gaza border. About 15 percent of the workers in those factories did not show up for work, though some were sent to work in other parts of the country instead.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told top commanders at a briefing that the Israeli offensive was open-ended. Military spokesman Avi Benayahu said it could "take many days."

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, said the campaign would continue until the population in southern Israel "will no longer live in terror and in fear of constant rocket barrages."

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who hopes to become prime minister after a February 10 election, appeared to rule out a large-scale invasion to recapture the territory. "Our goal is not to reoccupy Gaza Strip," she said on NBC's "Meet the Press" program. Asked on Fox News if Israel was out to topple Gaza's Hamas rulers, Livni replied: "Not now."

The U.N. Security Council called on all sides to cease fire. But an Israeli official said Israel was feeling little international pressure to halt its operations.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum urged Palestinian groups to use "all available means, including martyrdom operations" -- a reference to suicide bombings in Israel.

Israel expanded its air campaign to the southern Gaza Strip, bombing some 40 smuggling tunnels running under the border with Egypt, a network that is a lifeline to the outside world.

Dozens of Gazans crossed into Egypt through holes opened in the border wall by bulldozers and explosives. An Egyptian border guard and a Palestinian youth died in a clash as Egyptian police tried to stop the influx, medics and Egyptian security said.

The IAF destroyed 40 tunnels that connected the Egyptian and Gazan sides of Rafiah (Rafah) in a bombing sortie that lasted 270 seconds Sunday afternoon. Plumes of black smoke mushroomed into the air one after the other as the IAF cast bombs at the tunnels which line the Philadelphi Corridor between Egypt and Gaza.

The Corridor is supposed to be guarded by Egyptian forces but these have proven unable or unwilling to prevent large-scale smuggling of weapons and other supplies into Gaza.

Egypt later warned Gaza residents to steer clear of the border area as Israel planned to bomb more tunnels there, a Palestinian security source said. Israel says terrorists use border tunnels to smuggle weapons into Gaza.

A high-ranking military source said that all of the tunnels have been destroyed. However, according to Channel 1, the total number of tunnels across the Philadelphi Corridor is estimated at 600. Observers said the IAF may have used U.S.-supplied "bunker-buster" bombs to destroy some of the tunnels.

As part of the psychological warfare against Gaza, hundreds of residents of Gaza received recorded telephone calls in which they were warned: "You are in danger. In order to save your life and that of your family you must leave this place. This is a message from the Israel Defense Force."

Palestinian health officials said the deaths raised to 298 the number of Palestinians killed since Saturday.Hamas said 180 of its members were killed and the rest included civilians, among them 16 women and some children. The international Red Cross said that hospitals in the Gaza Strip were overwhelmed and unable to cope with the casualties.

One Israeli was killed on Saturday by a rocket fired from Gaza. Gazan rockets have caused few Israeli casualties but have damaged property and sparked panic in many border towns.

Benayahu, the army spokesman, said Hamas had not yet responded as strongly as expected, possibly because it was "trying to recover from the blows," but that "it is too soon to eulogize" it. Livni said Israel was trying to "target only terrorists and Hamas headquarters." "But, unfortunately, in a war ... sometimes also civilians pay the price."

Violence also spread to the West Bank, where Israeli soldiers opened fire at stone-throwing Palestinian protesters. Palestinian medical officials said two Palestinians were killed. Palestinian forces loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah shot and wounded three people in a protest in support of Hamas. Arab citizens of Israel also held protests.

In Damascus, a senior official said Syria has suspended indirect peace talks with Israel in response to the attacks. Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanese Hizbullah terrorists who fought a 2006 war with Israel, said he asked fighters to be on standby for a possible Israeli attack.

Parents in Gaza kept their children home from school as the roar of Israeli aircraft and thunder of explosions echoed. Schools in Israel's south, due to reopen on Tuesday after the Jewish holiday of Chanukah, were ordered to stay shut.

The government announced that all educational institutes - from kindergartens to high schools and including special needs schools - remain closed for the duration. At the same time, some 300 female students who are performing national service as teachers will help students with their studies inside bomb shelters and protected spaces.

The Education Ministry also instructed teachers in this area to start locating students in distress in order to provide them with extra lessons. Among the communities in which there will be no studies are Ashkelon, Netivot and Sderot, as well as several local authorities in the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip.

Abbas, speaking in Cairo, accused Hamas, which seized the Gaza Strip from Fatah in 2007, of triggering Israel's raids by not extending the ceasefire that Egypt brokered in June. And President George W. Bush's administration, in its final weeks in office, put the onus on Hamas to prevent more violence.

At the weekly Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert urged the public to be patient. He said the operation could go on a long time and the home front could endure an extended period of rocket attacks.

Iran's Red Crescent medical service said it would send aid to Gaza in the wake of Israel's Gaza campaign. A ship left Iran's port of Bandar Abbas Saturday night and will reach Gaza in 10 days, a statement by an organization official said. Iran said it expects the ship to be able to dock, as several others which recently sailed Gaza were able to do as well.

"The cargo contains over 2,000 tons of food, medicine and appliances and it will be accompanied by 12 Iranian doctors and relief workers," the official said. Earlier this month, Israel turned back an Iranian ship that was attempting to reach Gaza.

By the end of Monday, the third day of Operation Cast Lead, Israel will be close to exhausting its target bank for aerial bombing. At that point, it will have to either launch a ground operation or bring the campaign to a speedy conclusion. Thus far, however, Israel has been sending conflicting messages about where the operation is headed.

On the one hand, despite its stated goal of a limited operation ending in a new and improved cease-fire, Israel has so far not sent Washington its outline of an acceptable formulation and asked it to begin mustering the requisite international support. And since that process is likely to take several days, if the goal were to end the fighting quickly, Israel's diplomatic initiative should have been ready to go at the same time as its military initiative.

Hamas Threatens to Assassinate Livni, Barak

By Ha'aretz

Hamas on Sunday threatened to respond to an ongoing Israel Defense Forces assault on the Gaza Strip by assassinating senior Israeli officials. Senior Hamas official Fatah Hamad specifically threatened Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

He also threatened that Hamas would go after senior Palestinian Authority officials in the West Bank, as well as "those in the Arab world who have conspired against us," - an apparent reference to Egypt.

"We will reach that Zionist in her house, inside the Knesset compound. We will also get to the traitors in the Muqata compound in Ramallah and to all those in the Arab world that had a hand in the scheme against us. We will hunt Barak down and reach all of them," Hamad said.

"Today we are sending a message through the sea of blood that was spilled here and we will not surrender and we will defeat the enemy. From here, from within the proud Strip, we say to all our enemies: We will get to you, defeat you, and hunt you down one by one.

"We will reach the Zionist leaders in their homes, we will get to you, the collaborators in the Muqata in Ramallah, and we will settle the score with you one by one."

Abbas `Begged' Israel to Hit Hamas


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his office Sunday slammed as "barbaric" and "unnecessary" Israel's air strikes in Gaza, but according to top diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, Abbas for months now has been petitioning Israel to launch a massive military raid against his Hamas rivals in Gaza.

The sources, speaking to WND on condition of anonymity, said Abbas and his top representatives have waged a quiet campaign for months asking the Israeli government to target Hamas in Gaza just before his term in office is scheduled to expire on Jan. 9.

Hamas leaders have repeatedly warned they would not recognize Abbas after the 9th, and that they will launch a major campaign to delegitimize the PA president and install their own figures to lead the Palestinian government.

Abbas hopes a large-scale Israeli military campaign in Gaza would distract Hamas from attempting to undermine his rule, the diplomatic sources told WND. "It's an open secret among the diplomatic and military brass," one Israeli diplomatic source said. "The campaign from Abbas for us to attack Hamas in Gaza has been intensive."

The source told WND, that the airstrikes were not aimed at helping Abbas, and that Israel hoped to quickly conclude a ceasefire agreement with Hamas whereby Israeli military operations would be suspended.

In a move that could have monumental ramifications, the Hamas terrorist organization is quietly working to create its own Palestine Liberation Organization, or PLO, to compete with the well-known group of the same namesake headed by Abbas, Hamas officials told WND.

The effort is part of a larger expected Hamas campaign to delegitimize Abbas after January 9. According to sources close to Abbas, of all the moves Hamas is planning, the PA chief is most worried about the creation of a second PLO to compete with the group he heads, which has long been dominated by his Fatah party.

The PLO has been recognized since the 1960s as the sole representative body of the Palestinian people and is the signatory of major agreements with Israel, including the 1993 Oslo Accords.

Hamas officials told WND their group is in the process of building a second PLO, which would be a grand coalition of major Palestinian groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command in Lebanon, and even part of the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which has until now leaned toward Fatah.

According to sources in Hamas, some members of Fatah, including Faruq Al-Khadumi, chief of the political bureau of the PLO, assisted in a recent meeting in which Hamas presented the possibility of creating a new PLO.

The original PLO was founded by late-Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat and other Palestinian figures in 1964. It incorporates major Palestinian groups friendly to Fatah, including the PFLP.

The creation of a new PLO might be the final nail in Abbas' political coffin after his term in office expires. Top Hamas officials told WND in recent interviews that their group, which won 2006 parliamentary elections, would no longer recognize Abbas after Jan. 9.

"At midnight on the 10th, we are removing all of Abu Mazen's (Abbas') pictures from official buildings and institutions throughout the Gaza Strip," Mahmoud al-Zahar, chief of Hamas in Gaza, told WND.

"Do you believe in democracy?" al-Zahar asked, speaking by cell phone from Gaza. "If you do then you will accept that Abbas will no longer be the president. Legally, the leadership of the PA falls to us until new elections are held."

Abbas has said he will take advantage of a law whereby he can declare emergency rule and remain PA president until early 2010.

A new poll published by the Western-oriented Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research released earlier this month showed 64 percent of Palestinians believe Abbas' term should not be prolonged. Only 24 percent believe he should remain in office.

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