RAMALLAH (IPS) - Israel launched a ground incursion into Gaza late Saturday night, ending a week of speculation whether a ground assault would follow a week’s intensive bombardment of Gaza from the air and coast.
Simultaneously, Israeli officials in Jerusalem expressed satisfaction at a United States veto of a draft United Nations Security Council resolution, put together by Libya, which outlined a proposed ceasefire.
Palestinian medics reported that 28 Palestinians civilians were killed between midnight and Sunday morning, and about eight gunmen.
The total Palestinian death toll since Israel’s military assault began Saturday a week ago, now stands at nearly 500, with 2,500 injured. Two Israeli soldiers were killed, and about 30 injured Saturday night. Six Israelis have now lost their lives in the past week.
“We are very, very scared. There are continual explosions,” said Raghda Jadely, 44, a Palestinian mother of one living with her brothers, sisters and parents in the al-Bureij refugee camp 15 minutes drive from Gaza city.
“The camp has been bombed numerous times. They have targeted cars and mosques, and there have been about 40 people killed so far in the camp,” Jadely told IPS over the phone.
“We have no electricity and no water, and we are afraid to leave our homes.” Shortly after IPS spoke to Jadely, much of Gaza’s telecommunications collapsed after it was shelled.
Foreign media has been relying on telephone communication with people, and on reports from journalists based in Gaza, to be updated on events.
Israel has banned foreign journalists from entering Gaza but following a petition the Israeli high court said small groups of journalists would be allowed in “when the border crossings open and following a security check.”
During the week 10,000 Israeli troops, tanks, artillery and special operations units had amassed on the border as Israeli security officials and politicians debated the pros and cons of launching the ground operation.
Israel had held back on the ground invasion, preferring the relative comfort of blanket bombing from the safety of fighter jets and warships off Gaza’s coasts.
Israeli intelligence analysts are afraid of significant casualties being inflicted on the Israeli army in close combat with Hamas. They have also warned of booby traps and hidden explosives planted by the Islamic resistance organization.
Palestinian witnesses reported that after 10pm Saturday tanks advanced into Gaza from four different points after the firing of continuous rounds of artillery. East of Gaza city tanks entered through the Nahal Oz and Karni crossings and then advanced south.
In Beit Hanoun in the northeastern Gaza strip, tanks closed the main road between the town and Gaza city. In the south tanks advanced east of Rafah town and the refugee camp which borders Egypt.
Troops are currently stationed at the former Israeli settlement Netsarim, in the centre of the Gaza Strip, effectively cutting the territory into two in the belief that this will stop the transfer of arms.
As the ground offensive got under way, international and regional diplomatic efforts to address the escalating crisis mounted.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert Saturday and expressed his extreme concern and disappointment at Israel’s refusal to consider a ceasefire.
In a subsequent statement Ki-moon said he was “convinced and alarmed that this escalation will inevitably increase the already heavy suffering of the affected civilian populations.”
He further urged Israel to ensure civilian safety and allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need.
Another UN Security Council meeting is scheduled to take place Wednesday with the participation of foreign ministers, and Israel is once again working towards blocking any ceasefire resolution.
US President George W. Bush accused Hamas of launching “terror attacks” on Israel and expressed his support for the military incursion into Gaza. David Miliband, the UK foreign minister, on the other hand said he supported an immediate ceasefire.
“We are determined to work as quickly as possible for a durable ceasefire which must include an end to the smuggling of arms into Gaza, and the opening of the Gaza crossings,” Miliband said.
While vetoing Libya’s draft for an immediate ceasefire, the US has been engaged in intensive efforts with Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia to formulate a framework to end the fighting.
But this would be on terms very much to Israel’s advantage. The US is particularly interested in stopping the rockets from Gaza, and in return Israel would halt military incursions.
This still fails to address the issue of border closures which have created a humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions. The US wants the borders open for humanitarian aid, but within a framework of Palestinian Authority soldiers and European Union observers monitoring the crossings.
Under this plan the PA would replace Hamas as Israel desires, something Hamas will not accept.
While the international community bickered over a Security Council resolution over the weekend, regional players were still at odds following a meeting of the Arab League in Cairo last week. Members were split between those with sympathy for Hamas and those opposed to its existence.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit slammed the UN for failing to take a stance on the Israeli air strikes, and compared the situation to the 33 days the UN had taken to establish a ceasefire during the 2006 Israel war on Lebanon.
However, Egypt’s duplicity on the issue was not lost on the Arab street as Cairo was seen to give the green light for the Gaza assault to Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni when she visited the Egyptian capital days before her country launched its attack.
Furthermore, Egypt is complicit in blockading Gaza, and has sealed its Rafah border crossing with the territory. It allows only a trickle of humanitarian cases to enter Egypt.
Meanwhile, PA President Mahmoud Abbas canceled a trip to the UN in New York so that he could meet with French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Ramallah, in the central West Bank, on Sunday.
Sarkozy made a special trip to the region in a personal effort to push for a ceasefire.