Mohammed Dawwas: Life in Gaza: 'Hungry, freezing, and terrifying'
A Palestinian journalist's diary highlights the devastation brought to his family, his city and the lives of many thousands trapped by Israeli bombing ahead of yesterday's ground assault
Sunday, 4 January 2009
When the bombing of Gaza started last Saturday, the Palestinian journalist Mohammed Dawwas, looking from his seventh-floor window, saw his nine-year-old son, Ibrahim, rushing home from school near the police academy that was destroyed in the very first air raid. This is his diary for a week that was to end in invasion.
Ibrahim is too frightened to go out with his brothers to play. He had been doing an exam when the bombing started yesterday and I was stuck in the lift because of yet another power cut. He arrived back, shaking and crying. When I went to get some food he said, "please baba, don't go out." We had a call from the doorman in the building at around 7.45pm telling us we should get out because the Red Cross had given a warning that the Al Kinz mosque next to our building in Omar Mukhtar Street was likely to be destroyed. There were about 100 people down in the yard. You could hear continual explosions some way away. My brother-in-law Mahdi came in his car and said let's go, so we drove off to stay at my father-in-law's house – my wife and the eight kids staying in one room and me in the TV room. We drove in convoy, going down two one-way streets the wrong way to avoid going near the Palestinian Legislative Council building [which was destroyed three nights later]. It was completely dark except for our headlights. It was frightening.
When I got back this morning I opened every one of the windows and all the doors except the front one so they wouldn't be smashed by the explosions. Streets in Gaza City are mostly deserted except for people moving from one house to another and people travelling to the bakeries where there are long queues for bread. There is wreckage everywhere.
I interviewed Dr Hamdi Rashid, 45, who had just come off shift at Shifa hospital frightened and shocked by sight of the five Balousha girls killed in Jabalya today. He said the hospital had to move patients either to private hospitals or to their homes before they are ready because there are no empty beds. And he said the night before last all the hospital's front windows were shattered by the bomb that destroyed the Shifa Mosque.
Ibrahim asked me: "How much does it cost to travel outside Gaza?" I was telling him we have to wait and see, when my phone rang. It was a recorded message from PalTel [the Palestinian phone company] saying it had nothing to do with the messages being left by the Israelis on people's phones telling them to leave houses with wanted men or weapons. My son Ismail, who is 11, always goes to buy bread but today he refused to go alone. So I drove him and on the way he said: "Baba, don't drive near any mosques." He was afraid we might be bombed because several mosques have been attacked. When he we got the bakery he had to wait for two and half hours to get the sack of loaves they are allowing each family. When we got home Ibrahim started asking me: "When the crossings open, is it easy for everyone to leave?" The weather is freezing and we have no power – except for two to three hours a day – and no cooking gas. We're put blankets round us to keep warm. I do have a generator but I've only got five or six litres of fuel and I have to conserve it. I use it just long enough to heat the water for my wife and the girls to have a shower and to charge my mobile, which is very important. As mosques with Hamas connections are getting attacked we're worried again they are going to bomb the one next door. So we went back to my in-laws' house in western Rimal, behind Shifa hospital.
New Year's Eve. We're in a routine now, staying with my in-laws at night and coming home in the day. Instead of having fireworks or going out to restaurants and coffee shops, we have Israeli bombings. We heard that [Hamas de facto Prime Minister] Ismail Haniyeh's office in the Tel El Hawa district had been bombed. It was where I interviewed him just after he became Prime Minister. It was quieter today in Gaza City, and for the first time since the bombing started I went to the main vegetable market near Palestine Square. It was less busy than usual with everyone coming quickly, buying their stuff, and getting out. Prices have sky-rocketed with tomatoes up from one shekel a kilo the day before the bombing to two shekels, and hot green peppers, which last week were one shekel for 250g, are now three. The shops are all shut so there is less available. Going back I forgot the Soraya [main Gaza city security compound] had been bombed. We had to take a detour round it. Until the bombing there were lots of police, including traffic police, around, but now there are none. When I got home Ibrahim came to me again and asked: "When they let the journalists come in, I want to take $100 from you and go abroad." It brings tears to my eyes when he talks like this. Before we left for my in-laws, my brother Abdul Qadr called me from Qatar and said: "This was what happened in 1990 when I was in Kuwait and Iraq invaded. You have to do the same. Do what the kids want and then they'll feel safer."
This is the worst day. Last night I couldn't sleep at all for the bombings. When we got near the Ministry of Health on the way home two guys told us not to drive further down al-Wada Street because they might be about to bomb the ministry. Some of the kids wanted to see the PLC building which had been destroyed the previous night. It's New Year's Day, which is the anniversary of the formation of Fatah in 1965. When we got there we all remembered the first time Arafat spoke after coming back [from Tunis] to Gaza in 1994. Everyone was happy, optimistic; it was something great. This is crazy.
Thursday night was the calmest night. It's the only night I slept right through. But I woke up worried. I had a message from Maan news service the previous evening saying that all foreigners in Gaza were being given the option of leaving. So I thought there would be a land offensive. I decided not to go to Friday prayers. At the mosque where my in-laws go, prayers only took 10 or 15 minutes instead of the usual 45. One of my brothers-in-law suggested that the whole family eat together today – the first really proper meal we had had all week – meat kebabs. I hadn't had a shower or shaved all week. The doorman from my building rang me to tell me the power was on so I went home with my two daughters. But when we got back the power went off again. I changed my clothes.
This morning I found a leaflet outside our building. I'm assuming that they're not meant for us because it says in Arabic: "To the residents of the area. Because of terrorist activities from your area against the state of Israel, the Israel Defence Force will react immediately and operate where you live. For your safety you are asked to evacuate the area immediately." I don't believe they are going to bomb this building because no rockets are fired from here. But it is a kind of psychological warfare. It frightens people here. Today I've just used a kerosene stove to heat up a pan of water and had a really good wash and shave. I'm about to leave to go back to my in-laws because its getting dark. And it's still freezing.
Day by day
It was a shock, but no surprise, when Israel launched its heaviest air attack on Gaza in decades on 27 December. Before Christmas Hamas declared it would not renew a six-month truce with Israel, saying the Israelis had failed to lift their blockade on Gaza. Israel blamed Hamas for failing to end rocket attacks or halt weapons smuggling. The first day of the assault killed 227 Palestinians, but did not halt the rockets, with one Israeli man killed.
Sunday A laboratory at the Islamic University and 40 smuggling tunnels connecting Gaza to Egypt are bombed. Five sisters are killed in their sleep during an Israeli night attack on nearby mosque in Jabaliya.
Monday Air strikes intensify, with Hamas-run Interior Ministry bombed. Hamas fires rockets deeper into southern Israel. Defence Minister Ehud Barak warns Israel is engaged in war "to the bitter end".
Tuesday Hamas encourages militants to respond to Israeli attacks with "all available means". Rockets reach Beersheba – the farthest to date. Israel says attacks signal "long weeks of military action". US and EU call for ceasefire.
Wednesday UN Security Council considers resolution calling for immediate ceasefire, but Israel rejects it. Israeli tanks move towards the Gaza border. Office of Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and Hamas buildings are attacked.
Thursday Air strike kills the hardline Hamas leader Nizar Rayyan at his home in Gaza. More than 30 rockets fired into southern Israel. Aid agencies warn of humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Friday Israel bombs mosque claimed to be "terror hub" used to store weapons. Tanks mass on Gaza border. Palestinian death toll reaches 424, with four Israelis killed by rockets.
Yesterday Another senior Hamas commander, Abu Zakaria al-Zamal, is killed in an air strike. Israel launches artillery bombardment of Gaza in preparation for a ground assault.
Reaction: How world leaders responded to a week of aggression
Gordon Brown, Prime Minister
'It is vital that moderation must now prevail'
Tony Blair, Middle East envoy
'We need to devise a new strategy for Gaza'
George Bush, US President
'Hamas has... no intention of serving the Palestinian people'
Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State
'We need a ceasefire that is durable and sustainable'
Barack Obama, US president-elect
'Closely monitoring events'
Hillary Clinton, US secretary of state in waiting
Ban Ki-Moon, UN Secretary-General
'Strongly urge... an immediate stop to all acts of violence'
Barack Obama's silence on Gaza bombings is galling to Arabs
A region that had high hopes for him now feels he's condoning Israeli attack
By Liz Sly Tribune correspondent
1:44 AM CST, January 4, 2009
President-elect Barack Obama plays a little golf during his vacation last week in Hawaii. Al Jazeera contrasted footage of Obama on vacation with scenes of the carnage in Gaza, noting what it called "the deafening silence of the Obama team." (Tim Sloan / Getty-AFP / December 29, 2008)
BEIRUT — President-elect Barack Obama's silence on the 8-day-old offensive in Gaza is drawing criticism among Arabs who have grown skeptical about hopes that his administration will break with the Mideast policies of the Bush era.
Obama, who is moving to Washington this weekend, was on vacation in Hawaii when the crisis erupted and has made no statements, either about Israel's assault on Gaza or Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. His aides say that he does not wish to address foreign-policy issues in any way that could send "confusing signals" about U.S. policy as long as President George W. Bush is in office.
"The president-elect is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza. There is one president at a time, and we intend to respect that," Brooke Anderson, chief national security spokeswoman for the Obama transition team, said Saturday.
Arab commentators maintain, however, that Obama did comment on foreign affairs when he issued a statement condemning the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and that he has given several news conferences outlining his economic proposals. They suggest that his refusal to speak out on Gaza—where at least 460 Palestinians have died, compared with four Israeli deaths from the rockets—implies indifference to the plight of Palestinians or even complicity with Israel.
The satellite TV network Al Jazeera contrasted footage of Obama wearing shorts and playing golf in Hawaii with scenes of the carnage in Gaza, by way of highlighting what it called "the deafening silence from the Obama team."
"People recall his campaign slogan of change and hoped that it would apply to the Palestinian situation," said Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi, speaking from Amman, Jordan. "So they look at his silence as a negative sign. They think he is condoning what happened in Gaza because he's not expressing any opinion."
"If he does not want to talk politics yet, at least he could address the humanitarian suffering taking place," Kamhawi added. "He did not even send one signal to the people of this region that he is not happy with what is happening."
It is not only the Arab world that has noticed the president-elect's silence: At a gathering of celebrities to condemn Israel's assault in London on Friday, speakers called on Obama to speak out.
Such calls underscore the challenge confronting a president-elect who has promised to deliver change and who may now face unrealistically high expectations as to how far that change will go.
Nowhere is that challenge greater than in the Muslim world, where the policies of the Bush administration have pushed opinions of America to an all-time low.
Obama has said it is one of his priorities to restore America's image among Muslims. But Arabs enthusiastic about the departure of Bush say they have already been disappointed by some of Obama's statements on Israel, and by his appointments of key aides whom they identify with pro-Israeli policies, such as his incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and nominee for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.
"His current silence falls into the pattern of disappointment so far," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "Most people understand that the president-elect can't take issue with what the current president is saying, but it certainly is a disappointment."
Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, called Obama's silence "strange" and said it suggested he was fearful of offending Israel as past U.S. presidents have been.
But he said he understood that it would be difficult for Obama to speak out on Gaza and also to make any kind of impact in the Middle East after he does take office, because anything he might say now would be likely to offend one side or the other.
"If he talks against the Palestinians he will lose any chance before he has even started," he said in an interview. "And if he talks against the Israelis, this will not help him."
With the conflict still raging and the outcome uncertain, it is hard to know exactly what Obama could say to make a difference, beyond assuaging Arab sensitivities to the perceived past indifference of the U.S. to the suffering of Palestinians.
Arabs believe Israel took advantage of the transition period in the U.S. to launch its offensive, knowing that Bush would be unlikely to raise any objections. By the time Obama takes office Jan. 20, the fighting is likely to be over and the Palestinians in such disarray that the prospects for a viable Middle East peace process in the near future will be in tatters, analysts say.
But that does not stop Arabs from wishing Obama would do more.
"We want him to say something at least to stop the bloodshed," said Suhail Natour, a Palestinian activist who lives in the Mar Elias Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. "Waiting until the 20th, with the bloodshed continuing, I don't think is an acceptable way of confirming a new policy in the Middle East. Silence on this means complicity."
Day Four: Gaza War Postings
Posted December 30, 2008 | 10:33 AM (EST)
Near Nahal Oz, Israel -- The Israeli "all-out war" on Gaza has entered its fourth day leaving more than 363 dead and 1,800 wounded. Israeli troop movements on the Gaza border point to an imminent ground battle in the upcoming few days. On Monday, the Israeli military declared the Gaza border, where tanks, artillery and troops are massing for a possible ground offensive, a closed military zone.
Reporters are being barred by Israel from going into Gaza to cover the carnage. Many have been relegated to reporting from behind Israel's declared military zone, some report from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and rely on phone dispatches by stringers in the Gaza Strip. The best television coverage I've seen so far comes from Al Jazeera; the most provocative comes from Hezbollah's Al Manar. The Israeli coverage on IBA TV and Ch 10 reminds me of FOX News during the Iraq War with a focus on military strategies, graphics and interviews, with Israeli government spokesmen and generals.
At Beit Agron, the Israeli Government Press Office has not yet issued my "visiting journalist credentials." I went there in person three days ago, thinking they would be processed and delivered to me the same day. As I waited, a steady stream of international reporters applied for and received theirs. The press office liaison hands a British journalist his credentials and smiles, "don't forget to report that we were first attacked by Qassam rockets; they're hitting us we're not hitting them." The office wall is adorned with rockets fired by Hamas on the Israeli town of Sderot. A Korean journalist poses in front of them and does a "stand-up." The polite but evasive liaison keeps making excuses for the delay in issuing my press card. He keeps uncovering additional material that is missing in order to complete my application. He finally tells me that he won't have an answer for me until the next day... I won't bore you with the details, but I am Palestinian American.
I've been zigzagging my way between Israel and the West Bank to avoid IDF checkpoints. When we enter the Palestinian territories where emotions ran high, my Palestinian driver almost has a fit when he finds out that my cameraman is an Israeli. The Israeli strikes on Gaza are being broadcast in grisly detail almost continually on Arab satellite networks. In Bethlehem, an angry mob attacks the fortified Rachel Tomb Compound with stones and set tires on fire, but they are quickly dispersed by the Palestinian Authority riot police. Most West Bank towns have demonstrations and riots, and the Palestinian Authority forces keep them under control while Israeli soldiers watch and fire tear gas from a distance.
"Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) is a Zionist dog," screams a demonstrator in Hebron.
Many demonstrators are angry with Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas. They are blaming him of collusion with Israel. They are also angry with Egypt for not opening Rafah's border crossing to let in desperately needed medical supplies and food, which have been all but depleted by the ongoing siege on Gaza.
Two miles away from the Gaza border is the Israeli soldiers' staging area, and foreign journalists gather in anticipation as if it is minutes before the start of the Super Bowl or the start of the Olympics. No one talks about the death and destruction that will follow. IDF spokesmen keep saying that a ground force invasion was a distinct possibility but had not yet been decided upon. As I write helicopters hover overhead, their sound reminds me of a scene from Apocalypse Now.
Jamal Dajani produces the Mosaic Intelligence Report on Link TV
Thousands protest Gaza bombings
Thousands of Palestinians have been taking part in demonstrations across the West Bank in response to a call from Hamas for what it called a day of wrath against the Israeli attacks on Gaza.
The protesters are directing their anger not just at Israel but at Arab governments for their failure to stop the offensive.
As the violence continues Palestinian anger is increasing.
In Ramallah a large demonstration has been held in support of Hamas and the people of Gaza. Protests were planned in other towns along the West Bank.
In east Jerusalem stones were thrown at Israeli police.
Overnight in Gaza there were more than 20 Israeli air strikes. They targeted a mosque and the homes of several Hamas members.
But rockets are still being fired out of Gaza towards towns in southern Israel and preparations continue for a possible ground operation by Israeli troops.
There is speculation that could begin soon.
Protests against the Israeli bombing raids in Gaza have also been held across Pakistan, were hundreds of demonstrators have rallied, some calling for a holy war against Israel.
In Afghanistan, demonstrators ripped up an Israeli flag, torched banners and set alight an effigy of Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Up to 5,000 people gathered in the Indonesian capital Jakarta, while hundreds of people in Indian-administered Kashmir burned Israeli flags.
Palestinian Islamists vowed revenge on Israel for killing the Hamas leader and his family, and said all options including suicide bombs were now open to "strike at Zionist interests everywhere".
There was no sign of a ceasefire on the seventh day of the conflict, in which at least 424 Palestinians have been killed and 2,000 wounded. Four Israelis have been killed by Palestinian rockets.
Israel pressed on relentlessly with more air strikes, one of which killed three Palestinian children aged between eight and 12 as they played on a street near the town of Khan Yunis in the south of the Strip. One was decapitated.
"These injuries are not survivable injuries," said Madth Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor at Gaza's Shifa hospital who could not save another boy who had both feet blown off. "This is a murder. This is a child," he said.
Islamist fighters fired rockets at Israel's port of Ashkelon one of which blew out windows in an apartment building.
In Gaza City, a lucky few hundred foreign passport holders boarded buses in the pre-dawn murk to quit the Strip, with the help of the International Committee off the Red Cross, their governments and Israeli compliance.
"The situation is very bad. We are afraid for our children," said Ilona Hamdiya, a woman from Moldova married to a Palestinian. "We are very grateful to our embassy."
They left behind 1.5 million Palestinians unable to escape the conflict, a city facing another day of bombs, missiles, flickering electricity, queues for bread, taped-up windows and streets littered with broken glass and debris.
"We will not rest until we destroy the Zionist entity," said Hamas leader Fathi Hammad at the funeral of Nizar Rayyan, who was killed along with four wives and 11 children by an Israeli missile which hit his house on Thursday.
Spokesman Ismail Rudwan said that "following this crime, all options are now open including martyrdom operations to deter the aggression and to strike Zionist interests everywhere".
Israeli ground troops invade Gaza to halt rockets
IBRAHIM BARZAK AND JASON KEYSER | January 3, 2009 11:19 PM EST |
Israel infantry soldiers gather on the border just before leaving Israel for the northern Gaza Strip, Saturday, Jan. 3, 2009. Israeli tanks and infantry entered Gaza after nightfall Saturday, launching a much anticipated ground offensive in a widening war on Gaza's Hamas rulers. Israeli security officials said the operation is likely to go on for several days, but that the objective is not to reoccupy Gaza. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Thousands of Israeli troops backed by columns of tanks and helicopter gunships launched a ground offensive in Gaza on Saturday night, with officials saying they expected a lengthy fight in the densely populated territory after eight days of punishing airstrikes failed to halt militant rocket attacks on Israel.
The incursion set off fierce clashes with Palestinian militants and Gaza's Hamas rulers vowed the coastal strip would be a "graveyard" for Israelis forces.
The military did not publish details of casualties in the opening hours of the offensive but Army ambulances ferried wounded soldiers to a hospital in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba.
"This will not be easy and it will not be short," Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said on national television about two hours after ground troops moved in.
The night sky over Gaza was lit by the flash of bullets and balls of fire from tank shells. Sounds of explosions were heard across Gaza City, the territory's biggest city, and high-rise buildings shook from the bigger booms.
Troops with camouflage face paint marching single file. As the ground troops moved in, Israel kept pounding Gaza with airstrikes. F-16 warplanes hit three targets within a few minutes, including a main Hamas security compound.
Gaza residents said troops were seen before dawn Sunday in the town of Beit Lahiya, north of Gaza City, and the sound of intense fighting could be heard just east of the city, toward the border with Israel.
In the city itself, the Hamas-run Al Aqsa radio station was in flames from a missile strike. Staff had evacuated the building about a week earlier, at the start of the Israeli offensive, and continued broadcasting from another location.
"We have many, many targets," Israeli army spokeswoman Maj. Avital Leibovich told CNN. "To my estimation, it will be a lengthy operation."
Israeli leaders said the operation, known as Cast Lead, was meant to quell militant rocket and mortar fire on southern Israel. They said it would not end quickly but that the objective was not to reoccupy Gaza or topple Hamas. The depth and intensity will depend in part on parallel diplomatic efforts that so far haven't yielded a truce proposal acceptable to Israel, the officials said.
In the airborne phase of Israel's onslaught, militants were not deterred from bombarding southern Israel with more than 400 rockets _ including dozens that extended deeper into Israel than ever before. They fired six rockets into Israel in the first few hours after the ground push began, the military said.
One rocket scored a direct hit on a house in the southern city of Ashkelon earlier Saturday and another struck a bomb shelter there, leaving its above-ground entrance scarred by shrapnel and blasting a parked bus.
"I don't want to disillusion anybody and residents of the south will go through difficult days," Barak said. "We do not seek war but we will not abandon our citizens to the ongoing Hamas attacks."
Israel called up tens of thousands of reservists in the event Palestinian militants in the West Bank or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon decide to exploit the broad offensive in Gaza to launch attacks against Israel on other fronts.
The military said the country's north was on high alert in case Hezbollah guerillas decided to use its vast stockpiles of missiles against Israel. Israel and Hezbollah fought a 34-day war in the summer of 2006.
White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said U.S. officials have been in regular contact with the Israelis as well as officials from countries in the region and Europe.
"We continue to make clear to them our concerns for civilians, as well as the humanitarian situation," Johndroe said.
The U.N. Security Council held emergency consultations Saturday night on the escalation in Gaza. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has urged key world leaders to intensify efforts to achieve an immediate truce including international monitors to enforce a truce and possibly to protect Palestinian civilians.
Israel's bruising air campaign against Gaza over the past eight days began days after a six-month truce expired. Gaza health officials say the air war has killed more than 480 Palestinians in an attempt to halt Hamas rocket attacks that were reaching farther into Israel than ever before. Four Israelis have been killed by rockets.
Israel is taking a risk by wading into intense urban warfare in densely populated Gaza that could exact a much higher toll on both sides and among civilians.
This sort of urban warfare has not gone well in past campaigns where Israel sent ground forces into Arab population centers in the Palestinian territories or in Lebanon wars in 1982 and 2006. Israeli forces have either gotten bogged down or sustained heavy casualties, without quelling violent groups or halting attacks for good.
The decision to expand the operation, while continuing to batter Gaza from the air and sea, was taken after Hamas refused to stop attacking Israel, government officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because discussions leading up to wartime decisions are confidential.
Before the ground incursion began, heavy Israeli artillery fire hit east of Gaza City, in locations where the military said Hamas fighters were deployed. The artillery shells were apparently intended to detonate Hamas explosive devices and mines planted along the border area before troops marched in.
Hamas remained defiant as the ground war began.
"You entered like rats," Hamas spokesman Ismail Radwan told Israeli soldiers in a statement on Hamas' Al Aqsa TV, broadcast shortly after the start of the invasion. "Your entry to Gaza won't be easy. Gaza will be a graveyard for you, God willing," he said.
"Gaza will not be paved with flowers for you. It will be paved with fire and hell," Hamas warned Israeli forces.
A text message sent by Hamas' military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam, said "the Zionists started approaching the trap which our fighters prepared for them." Hamas said it also broadcast a Hebrew message on Israeli military radio frequencies promising to kill and kidnap the Israeli soldiers.
"Be prepared for a unique surprise, you will be either killed or kidnapped and will suffer mental illness from the horrors we will show you," the message said.
Hamas has also threatened to resume suicide attacks inside Israel.
Hamas has long prepared for Israel's invasion, digging tunnels and rigging some areas with explosives. At the start of the offensive, Israeli artillery hit some of the border areas, apparently to detonate hidden explosives.
Before the ground invasion, defense officials said about 10,000 Israeli soldiers had massed along the border in recent days.
Israel initially held off on a ground offensive, apparently in part because of concern about casualties among Israeli troops and because of fears of getting bogged down in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said his government decided to mount a land operation despite the risk it posed to thousands of soldiers.
An inner Cabinet of top ministers met with leading security officials for four hours Saturday before deciding to authorize the ground invasion.
Olmert told the meeting that Israel's objective was to bring quiet to southern Israel but "we don't want to topple Hamas," a government official quoted the prime minister as saying. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not supposed to share the information.
The immediate aim of the ground operations was to take control of sites militants use as rocket-launching pads, the military said. It said large numbers of troops were taking part but did not give specifics.
Israeli airstrikes intensified just as the ground operation was getting under way, and 28 Palestinians were killed. Palestinian health officials said civilians were among the dead, including a woman, her son and her father who died after a shell hit their house.
One raid hit a mosque in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, killing 13 people and wounding 33, according to a Palestinian health official. One of the wounded worshippers, Salah Mustafa, told Al-Jazeera TV from a hospital that the mosque was packed.
"It was unbelievably awful," he said, struggling to catch his breath.
It was not immediately clear why the mosque was hit, but Israel has hit other mosques in its air campaign and said they were used for storing weapons.
Israeli artillery joined the battle for the first time earlier on Saturday. Artillery fire is less accurate than attacks from the air using precision-guided munitions, raising the possibility of a higher number of civilian casualties.
An artillery shell hit a house in Beit Lahiya, killing two people and wounding five, said members of the family living there. Ambulances could not immediately reach them because of the resulting fire, they said.
Resident Abed al-Ghoul said the Israeli army called by phone to tell them to leave the house within 15 minutes.
The ground operation sidelined intense international diplomacy to try to reach a truce. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the visit the region next week, and U.S. President George W. Bush favors an internationally monitored truce.
Israel has already said it wants international monitors. It is unclear whether Hamas would agree to such supervision, which could limit its control of Gaza.
In Hamas' first reaction to the proposal for international monitors, government spokesman Taher Nunu said early Saturday that the group would not allow Israel or the international community to impose any arrangement, though he left the door open to a negotiated solution.
"Anyone who thinks that the change in the Palestinian arena can be achieved through jet fighters' bombs and tanks and without dialogue is mistaken," he said.
Hamas began to emerge as Gaza's main power broker when it won Palestinian parliamentary elections three years ago. It has ruled the impoverished territory of 1.4 million people since seizing control from the rival Fatah forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in June 2007.
Israel occupied Gaza for 38 years before pulling out thousands of soldiers in settlers in late 2005. Israel still controls Gaza border crossings.
Israel Destroys Hamas Homes, Flattens Gaza Mosque
IBRAHIM BARZAK and MATTI FRIEDMAN
January 2, 2009 01:01 PM,
AP, GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel bombed a mosque it said was used to store weapons and destroyed the homes of more than a dozen Hamas operatives Friday, but under international pressure, the government allowed hundreds of Palestinians with foreign passports to leave besieged Gaza.
Israel has been building up artillery, armor and infantry on Gaza's border in an indication the week-old air assault on Gaza's Hamas rulers could soon expand with a ground incursion.
At the same time, international calls for a cease-fire have been growing, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected in the region next week to push for a halt to the violence. Israel has so far been cool to a truce, and in a setback for diplomatic efforts, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she had no plans to come to the region.
"Hamas has held the people of Gaza hostage ever since their illegal coup against the forces of President Mahmoud Abbas," she said. Hamas seized control of Gaza from Abbas' Fatah forces in 2007 and Abbas set up a rival government in the West Bank.
Palestinian children from the Al-jojo family look from their family house at the damage after an Israeli air strike destroyed the neighboring house of Dababish family in Gaza, Gaza Strip, January 1, 2009. Israeli warplanes attacked government buildings in the Gaza Strip on New Year's Day after Israel and its Islamist Hamas foe both spurned ceasefire calls.
Rice charged Hamas "has used Gaza as a launching pad" for firing rockets into the Jewish state and that, as a result, the Palestinians in Gaza have had "a very bad daily life." She said the U.S. supports a "durable and sustainable" cease-fire, but any end to fighting would depend on the willingness of Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel.
The offensive spurred anti-Israel protests in the Middle East, the Muslim world and in parts of Europe on Friday.
Israel attacked new targets and Palestinians fired at least 30 rockets into southern Israel. But Israel still opened its border with Gaza to allow nearly 300 Palestinians with foreign passports to flee.
Story continues below
"There is no water, no electricity, no medicine. It's hard to survive. Gaza is destroyed," Jawaher Haggi, a 14-year-old Palestinian American, said after crossing into Israel. She said her uncle was killed in an airstrike when he tried to pick up medicine for her cancer-stricken father, who later died of his illness.
Many of the evacuees were foreign-born women married to Palestinians and their children. Spouses who did not hold foreign citizenship were not allowed out.
Israel's Foreign Ministry said most of the evacuees were Russian or Eastern European, and they were allowed to leave at the request of foreign embassies. They said the decision was not related to military plans.
Israel began the aerial campaign Dec. 27 to try to halt weeks of intensifying Palestinian rocket fire. It has dealt a heavy blow to Hamas, but failed to halt the rockets. Friday's attacks hit homes in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, wounding four Israelis, police said.
Before the airstrikes, Israel's military called some of the houses to warn of an impending attack. In some cases, it also fired a sound bomb to warn civilians before flattening the homes with missiles, Palestinians and Israeli officials said.
Israeli planes also dropped leaflets east of Gaza giving a confidential phone number and e-mail address to report locations of rocket squads. Residents stepped over the leaflets.
Israel used similar tactics during its 2006 war on Hezbollah in Lebanon.
After destroying Hamas' security compounds, Israel turned its attention to the group's leadership. Warplanes hit some 20 houses believed to belong to Hamas militants and members of other armed groups, Palestinians said.
Most of the targeted homes appeared to be empty, but one man was killed in a strike in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.
Separate airstrikes killed five other Palestinians _ including a teenage boy east of Gaza City, and three children _ two brothers and their cousin _ who were playing in southern Gaza, according to Health Ministry official Moaiya Hassanain.
More than 400 Gazans have been killed and 1,700 have been wounded in the Israeli campaign, Gaza health officials said. Hamas has said about half of the dead were members of its security forces.
The U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for the Palestinians Territories estimated that more than 100 of the dead were civilians, many of them women and children. The U.N. also warned of a health and food crisis in Gaza, despite an increase in humanitarian shipments.
Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have died in the rocket attacks, which have reached deeper into Israel than ever before, bringing an eighth of the country's population of 7 million within rocket range.
The mosque destroyed Friday was known as a Hamas stronghold, and the army said it was used to store weapons. It also was identified with Nizar Rayan, the Hamas militant leader killed Thursday when Israel dropped a one-ton bomb on his home.
That airstrike killed 20 people, including all four of Rayan's wives and 11 of his 12 children. The strike obliterated the four-story apartment building and knocked down the walls of others around it.
Israel's military said the homes of Hamas leaders are being used to store missiles and other weapons, and the hit on Rayan's house triggered secondary explosions from the stockpile there.
Israel has targeted Hamas leaders in the past but halted the practice during a six-month truce that expired last month. Most of Hamas' leaders went into hiding at the start of the offensive.
Fear of Israeli attacks led to a sparse turnout at Friday prayers at mosques throughout Gaza, although thousands attended a memorial service for Rayan. Throngs prayed over the rubble of his home and the destroyed mosque nearby.
An imam delivered his sermon via a car loudspeaker as the bodies of Rayan and other family members were covered in green Hamas flags. Afterward, a sea of mourners marched with the bodies.
"The Palestinian resistance will not forget and will not forgive," said Hamas lawmaker Mushir Masri, calling the assassination a "serious" development. "The resistance's response will be very painful."
While keeping up the military pressure, Israel has offered a small opening for the intense diplomatic efforts, saying it would consider a halt to the fighting. But it has attached the strict condition that international monitors enforce the truce. The last truce was repeatedly violated by Palestinian rocket and mortar fire.
Israeli police stepped up security and restricted access to Friday prayers at Jerusalem's al-Aqsa Mosque, barring all males under 50 from entering. The prayers ended without incident, although youths in a nearby neighborhood clashed with anti-riot police on horseback. No injuries were reported.
Jerusalem's mufti, Mohammed Hussein, said only 3,000 Palestinians attended prayers because of the restrictions, which he condemned as contradicting "the principle of freedom of worship."
In the West Bank city of Ramallah, Palestinian police broke up a demonstration by about 3,000 Hamas supporters and arrested about a dozen people. Police also broke up a similar protest in nearby Qalandia. There were anti-Israel protests in Hebron, Nablus and elsewhere in the West Bank.
Barzak reported from Gaza City; Friedman from Jerusalem.