Israel Vows to Hit Harder, Hamas Sees Victory

Israel on Monday vowed to hit Hamas with an "iron fist" if it does not stop firing its rockets against the Jewish state, as Hamas announced it was closer to victory.

Israel will hit Hamas with an "iron fist" if the Islamist movement does not halt its rocket fire against the Jewish state, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned.

"We want to end the operation when the two conditions we have demanded are met: ending the rocket fire and stopping Hamas’s rearmament. If these two conditions are met, we will end our operation in Gaza," Olmert said in a speech in the southern town of Ashkelon.

"Anything else will meet the iron fist of the Israeli people, who are no longer ready to tolerate the Qassams (rockets)."

In the meantime, Hamas said it was nearing victory in its war against Israel, Ismail Haniya, the head of the movement’s government in the Gaza Strip, said.

"We are approaching victory," he said in a televised address.

"The blood which has flowed will not have flowed in vain as it will bring us victory, thanks to God," Haniya added on the 17th day of Israel’s offensive.

"I tell you that after 17 days of this foolish war, Gaza has not been broken and Gaza will not fall."

Haniya also said that Hamas was ready to "examine in a positive manner any initiative which can put an end to this aggression and the blood of children being shed."
Boosting Forces

Israel was continuing Monday the operation, which has claimed the lives of more than 900 Palestinians.

Israeli infantry units clashed with Hamas fighters across Gaza as Israel sent reservists to boost its ground forces and talks on ending the 17-day-old war plodded on in Egypt.

At least six people were reported killed as a result of Monday’s clashes, medics said, which came after Israeli warplanes struck some 12 targets in Gaza overnight.

With the international pressure for a ceasefire mounting, Israeli forces might launch a full-scale attack on Hamas smuggling tunnels on Gaza’s border with Egypt, and perhaps a wider urban operation.

In Egypt, which has been spearheading Western-backed efforts to end the Israeli offensive, talks were due to resume between Egyptian officials and Hamas even as Israel’s envoy delayed his visit.
Reservists Called up

Olmert, Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met late on Sunday and decided to tighten pressure on Hamas, Israeli media reported.

Livni told Army Radio that the Gaza offensive had "restored Israel’s deterrence" and "created a new equation … which says that when our citizens are attacked we respond with force," but declined to say when Israel would end its assault.

Israeli officials had suggested earlier on Sunday the war could be approaching an end, with the overnight bombing marking the lowest level of night-time bombing in Israel’s 17-day-old war.

But late Sunday Israel sent reserve troops into Gaza in what Israeli media said could be a sign of intensifying operations as fighting raged in defiance of a U.N. Security Council demand for a ceasefire.

Meanwhile, Israel’s pointman for Gaza truce talks, Amos Gilad, delayed a planned visit in what Israeli radio speculated was meant as a pressure tactic on Hamas.

The reservists had been held back while Israeli leaders debated an all-out ground offensive on Gaza’s towns and cities to try to destroy Hamas’s ability to fire rockets into Israel.

Such a move would risk higher Israeli military casualties as well as even heavier losses among the 1.5 million Palestinians packed into the tiny coastal enclave with no escape route. 
Defying Security Council

Israeli warplanes have repeatedly bombed the so-called Philadelphi corridor along Gaza’s 15 km (nine mile) border with Egypt, sometimes using "bunker buster" munitions that explode underground and cause shockwaves to try to collapse the tunnels.

Israeli forces have demolished around 200 smuggling tunnels beneath the Gaza-Egypt border, representing two-thirds of the total, military spokeswoman Avital Leibovich said.

Hamas, which also ignored the Security Council resolution (saying it’s not concerned with a resolution that refuses to even recognize Hamas as a partner in the conflict), has vowed to keep on fighting. On Monday three rockets and mortars were fired into Israel without causing injuries, the army said.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said his group would not consider a ceasefire until Israel ended its air, sea and ground assault and lifted its blockade of Gaza.
Diplomatic Efforts Ongoing

Western and Israeli officials said diplomats were discussing a broad internationally assisted monitoring system to help Egypt stop weapons smuggling and intercept rocket shipments.

Visiting German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier told Livni Germany was ready to help Egypt combat smuggling by land and sea, Israeli officials said. Berlin has offered Egypt training and equipment, German diplomats said.

Egypt has spearheaded Western-backed efforts to end the fighting, calling for an immediate truce, opening Gaza’s border crossings, preventing arms smuggling and relaunching Palestinian reconciliation efforts.

On Sunday, it ramped up pressure on Israel by summoning its ambassador to demand that the Jewish state comply with the Security Council resolution and open humanitarian corridors to relieve the besieged territory.
Death Toll

Backed by helicopter gunships, Israeli tanks pushed into eastern and southern parts of the city of Gaza on Sunday, attacking Hamas militants who fired anti-armor missiles and mortar bombs.

The Palestinian death toll since Israel’s offensive began on Dec. 27 exceeded 900, many of them civilians, Gaza medical officials said. About 3,600 Palestinians have been wounded.

Thirteen Israelis — three civilians hit by rocket fire and 10 soldiers — have been killed, Israel says.

The conflict has sparked worldwide pro-Palestinian demonstrations, and US president elect Barack Obama said he is assembling a team of diplomats to start addressing the Middle East conflict once he is sworn in on Jan. 20.

Venezuela, which expelled Israel’s ambassador over the war, said on Sunday it had sent a cargo plane to Egypt bearing 12.5 tons of medical supplies and other materials for Gaza’s population.

President Hugo Chavez once again slammed Israel for "waging a Holocaust against the Palestinian people" in their 16-day offensive on Gaza and said a second 80-tonne humanitarian shipment would leave Venezuela for Gaza next week.

( and Agencies)

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