World powers call for peace, Hamas responds by firing rockets
Afp, Gaza City
At least 195 Palestinians were killed across the Gaza Strip on Saturday in massive Israeli air strikes on the Hamas-run enclave, said the head of Gaza emergency services Moawiya Hassanein.
Another 300 people were wounded, some 120 of them seriously in the attacks.
An Israeli man died as Hamas swiftly responded to the air raids by firing rockets into the Jewish state.
As Israel warned that the bombardment was “just the beginning,” Hamas told Israelis living near their Gaza stronghold to “prepare the funeral shrouds.”
In Gaza, thick clouds of smoke billowed into the sky and mangled, bloody, charred corpses littered the pavement around Hamas security structures in the coastal strip where the bombardment sowed panic in the streets, television images showed.
The deadly attacks came after days of escalating violence around the besieged coastal strip that the Islamist Hamas movement has run since June 2007, with militants firing rockets and Israel vowing a fiery response.
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas told AFP from Saudi Arabia that he was in “urgent contact” with numerous countries to stop “the cowardly aggressions and massacres in the Gaza Strip.”
The bombardment sparked international calls for a stop to the violence, with Russia, France and the European Union calling for an end to the bloodletting by both sides.
The European Union, the bloc’s current president France, Britain and Russia urged both sides to stop the fighting, the United States said Israel should avoid civilian casualties, while in the Middle East the Arab League and its members singled out Israel for blame.
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference on Saturday slammed as a war crime Israel’s air raids on the Gaza Strip that are reported to have killed at least 195 Palestinians.
“The latest Israeli massacre is a war crime and shows what little regard Israel has for international law and the 4th Geneva convention on the protection of civilians in time of war,” OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said in a statement.
The United States urged Israel Saturday to avoid civilian casualties as it pounded Hamas targets in Gaza, but warned the Islamist movement must halt its rocket attacks “if the violence is to stop.”
“The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza,” US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in Waco, as US President George W. Bush closed out 2008 on his Texas ranch.
Egypt, which brokered a six-month Israeli-Hamas truce that expired on December 19, slammed the Israeli strikes.
“Egypt condemns the Israeli military aggression on the Gaza Strip and blames Israel, as an occupying force, for the victims and the wounded,” President Hosni Mubarak said in a statement.
He gave instructions for the Rafah terminal — the only one that bypasses Israel — to be opened to allow wounded Palestinians to be evacuated “so they can receive the necessary treatment in Egyptian hospitals,” it added.
Hamas called on its fighters to “avenge with force against the enemy” while its militants warned Israelis living near the border to “prepare the funeral shrouds,” vowing that the Islamists’ response “was on its way.”
Israel, which put its communities around Gaza on a state of alert, warned the deadly strikes were “just the beginning,” said an army spokesman.
“The operation will continue and will be expanded as necessary in accordance with the assessments of the army and the defence establishment,” said a statement from Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s office.
The Israeli onslaught was launched “following… the incessant attacks on Israeli citizens in the south of the country….” and was aimed to “bring the rocket fire to an end,” said a statement from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office.
An army spokesman said that Israeli warplanes had carried out the strikes “to stop the terrorist attacks of the past several weeks against Israeli civilian installations.”
“We had warned the civilian population in the Gaza Strip of our attacks and Hamas, which hides within this population, is solely responsible for this situation,” he told AFP.
Saturday’s bombardments hit and destroyed Hamas security structures across the Gaza Strip, the group said. A training base of its military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, was pounded in the north of the territory.
The mid-morning air raids followed days of rocket and mortar attacks on Israel by militants inside Gaza, which the Jewish state had warned would be met with harsh reprisals.