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Israeli Forces Bisect Gaza Strip

Thousands of Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopter gunships pushed deeper into Gaza Sunday, fighting militants at close range and surrounding the coastal territory's largest city in the first full day of an overwhelming ground offensive.

Israel said it has inflicted a heavy blow against Hamas as it expands a weeklong offensive meant to stop rocket fire on southern Israel. But spiraling civilian casualties fueled an intensifying international outcry.

Israel's ground forces moved in after nightfall Saturday following hours of intense, fiery artillery shelling to clear the way. Gaza will be Israel's graveyard, Hamas warned, but Israel said it lost just one soldier in the first day of ground combat, reports CBS News correspondent Richard Roth.

"Israeli soldiers are currently in combat operations in Gaza and we know that we will take casualties," said government spokesman Mark Regev. "We didn't enter this operation because we wanted to."

They did it because they had to, said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at a cabinet meeting, to stop the barrage of Hamas rockets raining down on Israeli communities. But the rockets haven't stopped, Roth reports. More than thirty fell on Israel on Sunday.

Israeli soldiers continued to fight primarily in open areas in the launching zones used by Gaza's militants to send rockets raining down on Israeli cities. As the troops in three brigade-size formations moved in, residents of those Israeli cities began emerging from bomb shelters in hopes that the rocket fire would taper off.

Backing up the troops, mobile artillery units fired shells that exploded in heavy veils of white smoke over Gaza's urban skyline. Tanks pushed south of Gaza City as deep as the abandoned Israeli settlement of Netzarim, which Israel left along with other Israeli communities when it pulled out of Gaza in 2005.

That effectively cut off Gaza City, the territory's largest population center with some 400,000 residents, from the rest of Gaza to the south.

Israel's military chief said Hamas fighters were trying to draw soldiers deeper into Gaza's sprawling, densely packed urban areas, where the military said Hamas was seeking protection behind civilians.

Israeli forces have not yet entered urban areas, said Brig. Gen. Avi Benayahu, the chief army spokesman. He warned, however, that the operation was not a "school trip" and would be long and demanding.

The ground invasion presents Israel with the risk of being sucked into intense urban combat, with house-to-house fighting, sniper fire and booby-traps. Hamas is believed to have some 20,000 gunmen and has had time to prepare.

To guard against hidden explosives, Israel's ground forces moved through fields and orchards with bomb-sniffing dogs.

Since the ground assault began, 64 Palestinian civilians have been killed, said Dr. Moaiya Hassanain, a Health Ministry official.

At one hospital, in the northern town of Beit Lahiya, medics carrying three injured children in their arms rushed them to treatment. One of the children had a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around his head and covering his eyes.

An Israeli shell also struck an ambulance in the town, killing one paramedic, said Marwan Abu Ras, a hospital administrator. The relief organization Oxfam, which said the ambulance belonged to a partner organization, al-Awda Hospital, confirmed the incident.

An airstrike hit another ambulance belonging to the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza City, killing three other paramedics, said medic Jamal Hawajiri. That ambulance crew was driving to a Hamas training site where there were reports of wounded.

An Israeli army spokesman had no comment, after repeated queries Sunday.

Israeli forces killed dozens of armed Hamas gunmen, an army statement said, but Gaza officials could confirm only a handful of dead fighters - in part because rescue teams could not reach the battle zones.

The new deaths brought the death toll in the Gaza Strip to more than 512 since Dec. 27. The tally is based on figures from the U.N. and Palestinian health officials as well as a count by The Associated Press.

One Israeli soldier died - the first to be killed in the ground operation - and about 40 others were wounded, some of them in heavy exchanges of fire near the militant stronghold of Jebaliya, a town on Gaza City's northern outskirts, the army said. Heavy Israeli casualties could undermine what has so far been overwhelming public support for the operation.

Cries Against Israeli Offensive

Condemnation of Israel's ground operation poured in from around the Middle East and Europe, but the United States blocked approval of a U.N. Security Council statement Saturday night calling for an immediate cease-fire and expressing serious concern at the escalation of violence.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said that Israel had to push forward despite the calls for a halt to the ground offensive and that a cease-fire was pointless without a stop to Hamas rocket fire.

"Well, clearly, if there is somebody (who) can stop terror with a different strategy, we shall accept it," he said on ABC television's "This Week" program. "We shall not accept the idea that Hamas will continue to fire and we shall declare a cease-fire. It does not make any sense."

Peres said Israel is not aiming to reoccupy Gaza or even to crush Hamas, but to "crush terror." And he said that under Israel's blistering assault, Hamas was "now beginning to feel the weight of their mistakes."

The ground operation is the second phase in an offensive that began as a weeklong aerial onslaught aimed at halting Hamas rocket fire that has reached deeper and deeper into Israel, threatening major cities and one-eighth of Israel's population of 7 million people.

More than 45 rockets and mortar shells fell in Israel on Sunday morning, sending Israelis scrambling for bomb shelters. Four Israelis were lightly wounded. Four Israelis have been killed in the attacks since the offensive began.

In Gaza City, civilians cowered inside

as battles raged, while terrified residents in other areas fled in fear. In the southern town of Rafah, one man loaded a donkey cart with mattresses and blankets preparing to flee.

Lubna Karam, 28, said she and the other nine members of her family spent the night huddled in the hallway of their Gaza City home. The windows of the house were blown out days earlier in an Israeli airstrike, and the family has been without electricity for a week, surviving without heat and eating cold food.

"We keep hearing the sounds of airplanes and we don't know if we'll live until tomorrow or not," she said.

Severe damage to Gaza's phone network was pushing the strip closure to losing all contact with the world. The Palestinian phone company Paltel Group said 90 percent of Gaza's cellular service was down, as well as many landlines, because of frequent power cuts and the inability of technicians to reach work sites.

In his first public comments on the operation, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday that Israel could not allow its civilians to continue to be targeted by rockets from Gaza.

"This morning I can look every one you in the eyes and say the government did everything before deciding to go ahead with the operation. This operation was unavoidable," he said.

The Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, told a meeting of Cabinet ministers that most of Sunday's fighting was at close range, with Hamas preferring to fight in built-up areas rather than on open ground. Ashkenazi said the operation aimed to take over areas militants use to launch rockets.

Military intelligence chief Maj. Gen. Amos Yadlin told the Cabinet that Hamas was using mosques, public institutions and private houses as ammunition stores.

Yuval Diskin, the head of Israel's Shin Bet security service, told the ministers there was a "weakening" in Hamas' desire to keep fighting. Still, he said, while the Hamas political leadership has been hit hard, its military organization has "yet to be dealt the harsh blow Israel expects it to be dealt." The security officials' comments were relayed to the press by the Cabinet secretary, Oved Yehezkel.

Israel on Sunday approved the mobilization of thousands of reservists, in addition to tens of thousands called up on Saturday. Defense officials said the extra forces could enable a far broader ground offensive.

The troops could also be used in the event Palestinian militants in the West Bank or Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon decide to launch attacks, as Hezbollah did in 2006 when Israel was in the midst of a large operation in Gaza.

"We Would Do Exactly The Same Thing"

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg flew to Israel on Sunday for a daylong trip to express solidarity with Israelis threatened by Hamas rockets and to back the strikes against the militant group.

Bloomberg, accompanied by Congressman Gary Ackerman, a Democrat from New York, visited the southern Israeli towns of Ashkelon and Sderot, both of which have been targeted by Hamas rockets over the past several weeks.

Bloomberg visited a house that had been allegedly struck by a Hamas rocket, and met with New Yorkers who had immigrated.

"We have to stop this carnage and the way to stop it to have Hamas stop trying to kill innocents, and if they won't stop then the Israelis have no choice but to use all of the resources at their command to protect their citizens," Bloomberg said. "We would do exactly the same thing in New York City."

EU Provides €3 Million In Emergency Aid For Gaza

The European Union pledged €3 million ($4.6 million) in emergency aid to the Gaza Strip on Sunday as a high-level E.U. delegation left for the Mideast in a diplomatic push for a cease-fire.

The EU said in a statement that food, emergency shelter items and medical supplies were urgently needed by Palestinians in Gaza and that the aid would be "deployed as rapidly as possible."

Britain and France, meanwhile, warned that Israel's ground offensive marked a dangerous escalation of the conflict. And the Czech Republic, which took over the 27-nation EU's presidency on Thursday, urged Israel to allow humanitarian relief aid into Gaza.
The EU delegation left Prague on a 3-day tour that will include Egypt, the West Bank and Israel. The delegation includes EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana and the foreign ministers of France and Sweden.

"It is absolutely necessary that the violence has to stop," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said at Prague airport before the delegation boarded their plane.

"Since today all the crossings are closed and it is absolutely necessary that they get fuel, that they get food, that they get water and also hospitals can work," she said.

Schwarzenberg said the EU aims to "open ways for humanitarian aid" and negotiate conditions for a cease-fire.

The military action has sparked protests across Europe. At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI urged Israelis and Palestinians to immediately end the conflict.

France's Foreign Ministry said "this dangerous military escalation" complicates international efforts to get a permanent cease-fire. It also condemned Hamas rocket attacks.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the international community should press for an immediate cease-fire and that the ground offensive marked "a very dangerous moment." Brown said Palestinians urgently need to receive humanitarian aid, and he urged Hamas to end rocket attacks.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier used telephone conversations with his Israeli counterpart and with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to voice his "great concern" over the escalation of fighting in Gaza, his ministry said.

In Cyprus, government spokesman Stefanos Stefanou said the island could be used as a "bridge" for the delivery of humanitarian assistance to Gaza. He said Cyprus was in contact with Israel to determine how and when that assistance can be ferried to Gaza.

Turkey also condemned its ally Israel for the ground offensive. A Foreign Ministry statement Sunday urged Israel to immediately end the assault, and appealed to the U.N. Security Council to take steps to end the violence.

EU Development Affairs Commissioner Louis Michel said Sunday that with every passing day, the situation for Gaza's 1.5 million people was becoming more desperate.

"They rely on supplies from outside for their survival." Michel said. "I call on the Israeli authorities to respect their international obligations ... for the delivery of vital relief.

Protests Grow

More protests took hold, both within and beyond Israel's borders.

Christian priests and nuns held a peaceful protest in Bethlehem outside the Church of the Nativity, to protest the Israeli attacks on Gaza.

Palestinians in Ramallah and Nablus marched through the streets demanding Israel stop military operations in Gaza, while in Hebron clashes erupted between Palestinian youth and Israeli forces.

Israeli troops shot and killed a 20-year-old Palestinian who was demonstrating against the offensive. The army said troops were quelling a violent demonstration and shot at the man when he tried to climb over Israel's West Bank separation barrier and ignored orders to stop.

In Rabat, Morrocco, police estimated 50,000 people attended a demonstration against the Israeli offensive in Gaza.

Protesters emphasized their solidarity with the Palestinians in general and with Gaza residents in particular during Sunday's four-hour march.

In Turkey, thousands of people gathered in one of the Istanbul's main squares to protest the ground offensive. People chanting against Israel in a rally organised by pro-Islamist Virtue Party. Crowd waved Palestinian flags and set Israeli flags ablaze.

Turkey on Sunday condemned Israel's ground offensive in the Gaza Strip and warned such action would achieve nothing other than "opening the way to more blood and tears."

In Greece, two demonstrations were held in Athens on Sunday against Israel's offensive in Gaza. One turned violent when protesters smashed windows in several buildings and police fired tear gas and stun grenades.

Police arrested at least two of the rioters, but no injuries were reported.

Several thousand people gathered near the Israeli embassy in Paris on Sunday to support the Israeli ground offensive in the Gaza Strip. The gathering was organized by the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), an umbrella group of French Jewish organizations.

Demonstrators sang and waved Israeli flags.

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