Israel pledges to press on with Gaza offensive despite humanitarian crisis
JERUSALEM – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert pledged Sunday to press ahead with Israel’s offensive in northern Gaza, brushing off international calls to halt the fighting and Palestinian complaints of dwindling supplies of water, food and other staples.The death toll in Israel’s five-day sweep through the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun rose to 48 on Sunday, when four Palestinians, including two Hamas militants, were killed, according to Palestinian health officials. Israel launched the drive last week to try to stop to daily rocket barrages aimed at Israeli towns.The Vatican and European Union have expressed grave concerns about the offensive, but Olmert told his Cabinet on Sunday it was necessary to “considerably reduce the (rocket) fire and prevent terror.” He said Israel has no intention of reoccupying Gaza after last year’s pullout.”When we reach the conclusion that the effectiveness of the operation is bringing us closer to reaching the goals, we will definitely pull our forces out of Gaza,” he said.Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh called the Israeli offensive a “massacre,” and Beit Hanoun residents warned of a burgeoning humanitarian crisis.”We have electricity, but no drinking water,” said one 28-year-old woman, who declined to be identified because of the military presence in town.She said there were shortages of staples like milk and diapers and residents were being forced to share food. She also said tanks were visible from her home, and her husband was taken away by Israeli troops for questioning. “I don’t know what’s happened to him,” she said.Col. Nir Press, head of Israel’s liaison team dealing with Palestinian authorities and international aid organizations, said Sunday that shops in Beit Hanoun were open for a few hours Sunday and would be open again Monday.Press said U.N. agencies and the Red Cross were shipping in food, water, baby formula and other supplies and would continue to do so. He added that Palestinian technicians would be allowed to repair water mains on Monday.On Sunday, AP Television News showed images of ambulances and taxis rushing Palestinian casualties to the small Beit Hanoun hospital, dodging potholes gouged by Israeli shells. A young man, writhing from a chest wound, was pulled out of a yellow taxi and carried into the hospital.Despite the offensive, Palestinians fired six rockets at Israel on Sunday, the military said. Nobody was hurt.Israel said its attacks are focused on militants who launch the rockets. While most of the dead have been militants, several civilians – including a 4-year-old girl, a 72-year-old man and two paramedics – have been killed. Two women who attempted to help a group of militants besieged in a mosque also died.On Sunday, about 100 paramedics marched through the streets of Gaza City to protest the deaths of their two 17-year-old colleagues, both volunteers. They were killed in an Israeli missile strike last week in the town of Beit Lahiya, next to Beit Hanoun.The International Red Cross harshly criticized Israel, saying the paramedics and their vehicle were clearly marked. “The ICRC is appalled by this failure to protect personnel engaged in emergency medical duties,” a statement released Sunday said.At the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI said he was worried about the “grave deterioration” in the Gaza Strip, and called on all sides to work to stop the bloodshed and immediately resume “direct, serious and concrete negotiations.”In a weekend statement, the EU called on both Israel and the Palestinians to halt the violence because of the casualties, but aimed its sharpest barb at Israel.”The right of all states to defend themselves does not justify disproportionate use of violence or actions which are contrary to international humanitarian law,” the EU said.Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Israel was doing everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. “We have to get directly to the people who do the shooting and that is what we are trying to do,” he told reporters.Israel withdrew all troops and Jewish settlements from Gaza last year. But it sent forces back into the area after Palestinian militants tunneled into Israel and abducted a soldier in June.A Palestinian militant group claiming to hold Gilad Shalit, the captured soldier, said it has no plans to kill the serviceman, despite the Israeli offensive.However, Abu Mujahid, a spokesman for the Popular Resistance Committees, said the soldier could be harmed by Israel’s military activity. “Gilad Shalit’s life is in danger through the incursion and bombing of houses,” said Abu Mujahid.—Associated Press Writer Ramit Plushnick-Masti contributed to this report.