Israeli Troops Squeeze Gaza, Toll Nears 1,000

Israel pressed on with its assault on the Gaza Strip, sending its tanks into built-up areas in the city of Gaza, the deepest thrust since the attack began as the military said "there is still work ahead" against Hamas in a devastating 18-day-old attack.

Israel continued its air and sea bombardment of the strip as its ground troops traded gunfire with Hamas fighters on the streets and the Palestinian death toll rose to 952 with thousands injured, Gaza’s Health Ministry said. Israel says 10 Israeli soldiers and three civilians hit by Hamas rockets have died.

Israeli Tanks on the Border

Explosions and heavy machinegun fire echoed through the city of 500,000 after Israeli tanks moved nearer to its densely populated downtown area but did not enter, residents said.

Talat Jad, a 30-year-old resident of the Gaza suburb of Tel al-Hawa where tanks thrust overnight, said he and 15 members of his family gathered in one room of their house, too frightened to look out the window.

"We even silenced our mobile phones because we were afraid the soldiers in the tanks could hear them," Jad said. "Some of us recited from the Quran and others prayed the sounds of explosions would die down."

U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton ruled out negotiations with Hamas unless it drops its stance, saying her position is "absolute."

"On Israel, you cannot negotiate with Hamas until it renounces violence, recognizes Israel and agrees to abide by past agreements. That is just for me an absolute," Clinton told a Senate confirmation hearing.

"That is the United States government’s position. That is the president-elect’s position," she said after a senator suggested it is "naive and illogical" to pursue diplomacy with governments opposed to Israel.
Meanwhile, U.N. secretary-general headed to the Middle East to press for a truce as the Security Council was to hold closed-door consultations on the crisis.

Ban Ki-moon is s schedule to hold talks with leaders in Egypt, Israel, Jordan and Syria.

"My message is simple, direct, and to the point: the fighting must stop. To both sides, I say: Just stop now," Ban told reporters before his departure.

Meanwhile, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas accused the Jewish state of trying to "wipe out" his people and called for diplomatic efforts to end the deadly war.

In Ramallah, Abbas accused Israel of aiming to "wipe out" the Palestinian people in Gaza by refusing to end its deadly war on Hamas in the battered enclave.

"This is the 18th day of the Israeli aggression against our people, which has become more ferocious each day as the number of victims rises," Abbas said at the opening of a meeting of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Nuclear Gaza

In related news, an Israeli leader called on the Jewish state to follow the example set by the United States when it brought Japan to its knees at the end of World War II.

"We must continue to fight Hamas just like the United States did with the Japanese in World War II," the head of an ultra-nationalist opposition party, Avigdor Lieberman, was quoted by the website of the Jerusalem Post as saying.

Japan surrendered in 1945 after atomic bombs were dropped on the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Lieberman, who quit Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s coalition government last year, said Israel needed to "break the will" of Hamas in Gaza.

"Israel won’t be secure so long as Hamas is in power, and therefore we need to come to a decision that we will break the will of Hamas to keep fighting," he was quoted as saying during a speech at Bar-Ilan University on Monday.

Lieberman’s right wing Yisrael Beitenu party, which draws its core support from Israel’s large Russian immigrant community, is tipped to emerge as the fourth largest party in elections due on Feb.10.
Shortage of Supplies

International Committee of the Red Cross chief Jakob Kellenberger arrived in Gaza at the start of a three-day visit to the Occupied Territories and Israel, his agency said.

Kellenberger, the agency’s president, is planning to hold talks with senior Israeli and Palestinian officials and to visit Gaza’s embattled Al-Shifa hospital, the ICRC said in a statement.

Human rights groups have reported shortages of vital supplies including water, in Gaza, due to the fighting. A fuel shortage has brought frequent power blackouts. Israel has permitted almost daily truck shipments of food and medicine.

Israeli leaders, facing elections, have given few clues on how long they would continue the offensive. Analysts have cited Obama’s coming inauguration on Jan.20 as a factor pushing for an end to the fighting.

( and Agencies)

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