The Palestinian death toll in Israel’s Gaza offensive topped 1,000 on Wednesday, as Israel sent warplanes to drop more bunker-busting bombs on smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human rights said more than 670 civilians were among the dead. Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip have been killed since Israel launched its campaign on Dec. 27.
The Israeli military said its aircraft bombed about 35 tunnels and also struck police headquarters in the Israeli-encircled city of Gaza, eight squads of gunmen and weapons storage facilities.
Six Palestinian militants and four civilians were killed in the Israeli attacks, medical workers said.
Hamas has repeatedly vowed to keep fighting and on Wednesday, 12 rockets and mortars were fired into Israel from Gaza, the army said. That number represents a fraction of the rockets fired at the start of the offensive on December 27.
A senior Israeli defense official told AFP that the war, which has killed some 400 civilians and has sparked outrage across the Muslim world, could well continue until the Jan. 20 inauguration of US president-elect Barack Obama.
"Israel is still waiting for guarantees on solving the issue of weapon smuggling and things are moving in Cairo," he said on condition of anonymity.
"Nevertheless, Israel is not feeling any pressure at this point to end the operation," he said.
Israeli forces battled Palestinian fighters in the Gaza Strip’s main city and bombed the enclave’s southern border with Egypt as the death toll from the 19-day war on Hamas neared 1,000.
Explosions and heavy machinegun fire echoed across Gaza, a city of 500,000, after Israeli tanks moved nearer to its densely populated downtown area but did not enter, residents said. The tanks appeared to be testing how the fighters reacted.
"Tanks are shelling Palestinian fighters, who are responding with RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades). There is heavy machine-gun fire on both sides," witnesses said.
United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Cairo on Wednesday for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the start of a regional tour aimed at ending the devastating war in the Gaza Strip.
Israel also carried out a wave of bombing raids on the border town of Rafah, sending hundreds of people fleeing onto the streets, and those strikes continued into the night.
Speaking on Tuesday, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas said Israel’s offensive was "becoming more ferocious each day as the number of victims rises."
"Israel is keeping up this aggression to wipe out our people over there," he added from his base in the occupied West Bank.
Israel’s military chief said Operation Cast Lead was making progress but warned that troops faced "complicated" conditions in Gaza City, where Israel has little combat experience.
"We have already achieved a lot against both Hamas’s infrastructure and its military wing but we still have work to be done," the chief of staff, Lieutenant General Gabi Ashkenazi, told lawmakers.
Ashkenazi said Israeli aircraft had carried out more than 2,300 strikes since the offensive was launched.
Ashkenazi added that Israeli warplanes had bombed "all of the known tunnels" during the offensive, "very seriously hurting Hamas’s ability to smuggle in weapons."
A senior official told the Ynet Internet news site that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had "defined two objectives — an end to Hamas fire and terror, and an end to the organization’s military build-up. As long as these objectives are not secured, we will not be under any pressure (to end the operation)."
Saying "nobody should stand there with a stop watch or try to put a gun to our head" to end the offensive, he added: "We are not seeking an exit, but rather, success." As Olmert defined it, "what we need here is a strategy of success, regardless of how much time it takes."
Israel has rebuffed as "unworkable" a U.N. Security Council ceasefire resolution last week and said a truce must ensure Hamas cannot rearm through tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border.
Aid agencies have warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in the territory where the vast majority of the 1.5 million population depends on foreign aid and is already reeling from 18 months of punishing Israeli blockade. Israel has permitted almost daily truck shipments of food and medicine. But Human Rights Watch said Israel’s daily 3-hour break in attacks to facilitate the supply of humanitarian aid to Gazans was "woefully insufficient".
"Israeli bombardment is causing extensive destruction to homes and to public infrastructure throughout the Gaza Strip and is jeopardizing water, sanitation and medical services," said a U.N. field report.
"As of this morning (Tuesday), 60 percent of Gazans are not receiving any power. The rest receive electricity intermittently," the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said.
The chief U.N. aid official for Gaza appealed to the international community to protect Gaza’s civilians, saying nowhere in the territory was safe any longer with the conflict becoming "a test of our humanity".
"All the people, the first thing they say to me and the last thing they say to me is ‘Please, we need protection, nowhere is safe," John Ging, director of operations for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, told reporters in Geneva by videolink.
(Alarabiya.net and Agencies)