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Tuesday 23 September 2014

Dozens die as Israel bombards Gaza

Published 29/07/2014 | 08:39

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Israeli forces' flares light up the night sky of Gaza City (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Smoke rises from an Israeli strike on a building in Gaza City (AP)
A Palestinian peers out from a damaged building (AP)

Israel has unleashed its heaviest bombardment in its war against Hamas, striking symbols of the militant group's control in Gaza and firing tank shells that shut down the strip's only power plant.

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Thick black smoke from the plant's burning fuel tank rose for hours. The station's shutdown further disrupted the supply of electricity and water to the 1.7 million people packed into the narrow Palestinian coastal territory.

Tonight, people in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza reported intense tank shelling. Ten members of an extended family were killed and 50 other people wounded in the area, Palestinian health officials said. Two brothers driving in a car with markings of a UN aid agency were killed by shrapnel, an area resident said.

The heavy strikes - which came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned of a "prolonged" campaign against Hamas - were a new blow to international efforts to reach a sustainable truce in the fighting.

Israel has vowed to stop the Hamas rocket and mortar fire that has reached increasingly deeper into its territory and to destroy a sophisticated network of tunnels that have been used by the militants to infiltrate the Jewish state. For its part, Hamas has so far rejected ceasefire efforts unless its demands are met, including a lifting of a punishing blockade.

At least 1,175 Palestinians have been killed since the start of fighting on July 8, including at least 100 today, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra.

The dead included multiple members of at least five families who were pulled from the rubble after airstrikes and tank shelling struck their homes, including the mayor of a refugee camp and his 70-year-old father.

Israel has reported 53 soldiers and three civilians killed.

Already, the intensity and the scope of the current Gaza operation is on par with an invasion five years ago, which ended with Israel unilaterally withdrawing after hitting Hamas hard.

Today Israeli warplanes carried out dozens of attacks, levelling the home of the top Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, and damaging the offices of the movement's Al-Aqsa satellite TV station, a central mosque in Gaza City and government offices.

Haniyeh's house, in a narrow alley of the Shati refugee camp, was reduced to rubble but no one was hurt. ners.

Israel has targeted several homes of Hamas leaders but none has been killed. Haniyeh said "destroying stones will not break our determination".

The scene at the Gaza power plant after two tank shells hit one of three fuel tanks was daunting. "We need at least one year to repair the power plant, the turbines, the fuel tanks and the control room," said Fathi Sheik Khalil of the Gaza Energy Authority. "Everything was burned."

He said crew members who had been trapped by the fire for several hours were evacuated.

Even before the shutdown, Gaza residents only had electricity for about three hours a day because fighting had damaged power lines. Most of the power lines from Israel that provided electricity for payment were previously damaged in the fighting.

This means most of Gaza will now be without power. The lack of electricity will also affect water supplies, since power is needed to operate water pumps.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman, said Israel's latest strikes signal "a gradual increase in the pressure" on Hamas.

Israel is "determined to strike this organisation and relieve us of this threat," Lerner said.

International calls for an unconditional ceasefire have been mounting in recent days, as the extent of the destruction in Gaza became more apparent.

Hamas has said it will not stop fighting until it wins international guarantees that a crippling border blockade of Gaza will be lifted. Israel and Egypt had imposed the closure after Hamas seized Gaza in 2007, defeating forces loyal to Abbas. Over the past year, Egypt has further tightened restrictions, shutting down hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border that had provide crucial tax income to Hamas. The closure of the tunnels drove Hamas into a severe financial crisis.

Israel has said it is defending its citizens against attack from Gaza by hitting Hamas rocket launchers, weapons storage sites and military tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border.

Israel said its troops will not leave Gaza until they have demolished the tunnels which have been used by Hamas to sneak into Israel to try to carry out attacks.

The military said Palestinian militants fired at least 64 rockets today at Israeli cities.

Press Association

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