Israel sent tanks deeper into Gaza on Saturday and threatened to intensify its air and ground assault, ignoring international calls to stop the conflict with Hamas militants who fired more rockets into the Jewish state.
Hamas’s leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, said his group would not consider a Gaza ceasefire until Israel ends its 15-day-old military offensive and opens the coastal enclave’s border crossings.
An Israeli tank shell killed eight Palestinians in Jabalya, a refugee camp in the north of the Gaza Strip, and an air strike killed a woman in nearby Beit Lahiya, Palestinian medics said.
The deaths, including those of several Palestinian fighters, raised the Palestinian toll to at least 850. Thirteen Israelis have been killed: 10 soldiers and three civilians hit in rocket fire, according to Israeli reports.
The fighting continued even during a three-hour ceasefire window Israel has established in recent days to allow aid into Gaza to sustain the 1.5 million people living there.
As Israeli tanks advanced in northern Gaza and aircraft hit targets across the coastal strip, Hamas rockets hit Ashkelon, 20 km (12 miles) north of Gaza, wounding three Israelis.
The Israeli military also dropped leaflets on southern Gaza, around the town of Rafah, warning residents to stay away from militants, weapons storage facilities and tunnels as it was about to escalate its bombing throughout the coastal territory.
"In the coming period, the Israeli army will continue to attack tunnels, weapons caches, and terrorists with escalating force all over the Gaza Strip," the leaflets read.
Concerned about the deepening humanitarian impact of the war, with more than half Gaza’s population dependent on U.N. food assistance, the United Nations said it hoped to resume full aid distribution after receiving Israeli assurances that its staff would not be harmed. A U.N. driver was killed on Thursday.
Israel has pressed on with its offensive despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and Egyptian-European efforts at mediation, saying it is intent on stopping Hamas rocket fire. Hamas, too, has ignored calls for a halt to hostilities, firing eight rockets at Israel on Saturday.
U.S. Blames Hamas
The United States offered further public support for the Israeli military goals.
The United States, which abstained in the U.N. vote, offered further public support for Israel’s military goals.
"This situation will not improve until Hamas stops lobbing rockets into Israel," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said.
He said President George W. Bush had expressed concern to Olmert about the humanitarian situation and the loss of civilian lives during the Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip.
With the Palestinian civilian death toll already in the hundreds, Israeli actions have drawn denunciations from the Red Cross, U.N. agencies and Arab and European governments.
U.N. sources said Israel also was stepping up operations in the West Bank, detaining Palestinians in rising numbers.
Hamas wants any ceasefire deal to include the ending of Israel’s crippling economic blockade of the Gaza Strip and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the territory, from which Israel withdrew in 2005 after a 38-year occupation.
Israel’s key demands are for a complete halt to Hamas rocket fire and for international guarantees to stop the group rearming via smuggling tunnels under the border with Egypt.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal on Saturday slammed Israel’s assault on Gaza as a "Holocaust" in which the blood of Palestinian children was being shed to bolster prospects in next month’s Israeli elections.
"The enemy has failed by creating a real Holocaust on the soil of Gaza," Meshaal, who lives in exile in Syria, said in a pre-recorded statement aired on Arab satellite televisions.
Meshaal said the military campaign had been a failure. "What did you achieve through this war… other than the killing of children, of innocents?" he asked the Israeli leadership.
"Let Israel pull out first, let the aggression stop first, let the crossings open and then people can look into the issue of calm," said Meshaal.
And he told residents of the embattled Gaza Strip, where Israel’s offensive has killed more than 850 people including 270 children since it was launched on December 27, that victory was near.
Ten Syria-based Palestinian factions said earlier on Saturday they are opposed to the deployment of international troops in the embattled Gaza Strip and rejected a U.N, resolution calling for a ceasefire.
The leaders of the factions "reject the presence of any international forces or observers in the Gaza Strip or any security arrangements that undermine the resistance" against Israel, a statement said.
Earlier on Saturday, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas urged Hamas to accept an Egyptian-brokered truce proposal to end Israel’s war in Gaza, as a Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo to discuss the deal.
Israel has also rejected the U.N. resolution passed on Thursday and has pressed on with the offensive on Gaza which has killed more than 800 Palestinians since December 27.
(Alarabiya.net and Agencies)