Page last updated at 01:43 GMT, Monday, 5 January 2009

Israeli forces split Gaza in two


Israeli forces split Gaza in two

Fighting is raging into the night in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli ground forces and heavy armour have effectively cut the territory in two.

Supported by a naval, air and land bombardment, they have taken up positions on either side of Gaza City and along a major east-west road.

About 40 tanks were moving towards Khan Younis in the south, reports say.

Palestinian officials say 70 people have been killed in the ground assault. One Israeli soldier has been killed.

We had to squash [the injured into the ambulance]... on top of each other, including the dead man, just to get them to some sort of place of safety
Sharon Lock
activist in Gaza with Palestinian-led International Solidarity Movement

Earlier, US Vice-President Dick Cheney defended the Israeli ground offensive, saying air attacks were not enough to destroy rocket sites. He also said Israel had not sought US approval launching it.

Israeli President Shimon Peres rejected calls for a ceasefire, but said his country did not intend to re-occupy Gaza or crush Hamas.

The senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the Israeli offensive was destroying the Middle East peace process and will only strengthen extremists in the region.

An EU mission has flown to the region. The bloc's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said the crisis represented a failure of diplomacy.

At least 32 missiles were fired into southern Israel from Gaza on Sunday. Two people were lightly wounded in the Eshkol region, while one woman was slightly injured in Sderot.

'Face-to-face battles'

If the incursion towards Khan Younis is confirmed, it marks a new development as until now, the Israeli ground assault has been concentrated in the north.

As night fell, blackouts plunged much of Gaza into darkness. However, the flashes of explosions could be seen from the northern border, and the regular sounds of gun and artillery fire heard.


During the day, the fighting appeared to move away from the northern end of the territory, towards more populous areas in the west, correspondents say.

Later, Israeli military sources and witnesses said Israeli tanks and heavy armour had taken up positions on either side of Gaza City, in effect cutting Gaza into two parts, from the Karni crossing to the Mediterranean Sea.

The town of Beit Hanoun was also reportedly surrounded.

Hamas officials and witnesses report major fighting in five areas: east of the Jabaliya refugee camp; in the Zeitoun area; near the site of the former Jewish settlement of Netzarim; in the centre of Gaza; and on the outskirts of Khan Younis.

Hamas said its fighters were in some cases engaged in "face-to-face battles" with Israeli soldiers.

Earlier, the Israeli military said the militants were not engaging its troops in close combat but using mortars and improvised bombs.

The Palestinian health ministry says 509 Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed since the Israelis began their assault on Gaza eight days ago.

It says 21 of the 70 people killed since the beginning of the ground offensive were children. Some 2,500 people have reportedly also been wounded.

The figures could not be independently verified. Israel is refusing to let international journalists into Gaza despite a ruling by its a supreme court to admit a limited number of reporters.

Hamas officials say that 10 of its fighters have so far been killed.

The Israeli military says one of its soldiers has been killed and 34 wounded in the ground offensive, three of them seriously. It believes about 80% of the Palestinians killed were Hamas members.

Battle to save injured

The BBC's Rushdi Abu Alouf in Gaza City says the fighting and Israeli positions have stopped desperately needed medical supplies getting through to hospitals that are struggling to cope with the casualties.

Israeli artillery fires on the Gaza Strip (4 January 2009)

Many agencies say deliveries have been insufficient, and that it is difficult to get supplies to where they are most needed.

Sharon Lock, an activist with the International Solidarity Movement, a Palestinian-led organisation which campaigns against Israel's actions, told the BBC she had watched medical crews in Gaza working under terrible conditions:

"I went to one house where about four people had been injured," she said.

"One was completely killed, his legs were mangled and he'd lost a foot. There was a three-year-old child in the house that was injured, there were two men in their thirties who had severe internal injuries and we had to put them all in the one ambulance.

"We had to squash them in, you know, on top of each other, including the dead man, just to get them to some sort of place of safety."

An Israeli army spokesman, Capt Guy Spiegelman, told the BBC Hamas, not Israel, was to blame for causing civilians to suffer.

"If they just would stop firing those rockets, we wouldn't be in this situation," he said.

"If they would place their rockets - not amongst civilian population, but in open areas - then the civilians wouldn't need to suffer," the Israeli officer added.

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