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Israel Vows to Destroy Hamas Tunnels   07/31 06:50

   Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Israel will destroy the 
Hamas tunnel network in the Gaza Strip "with or without a cease-fire," as the 
military called up another 16,000 reservists to pursue its campaign in the 
densely-populated territory.

   JERUSALEM (AP) -- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that 
Israel will destroy the Hamas tunnel network in the Gaza Strip "with or without 
a cease-fire," as the military called up another 16,000 reservists to pursue 
its campaign in the densely-populated territory.

   Netanyahu's vow came as international efforts to end the 23-day-old conflict 
seemed to sputter despite concern over the mounting death toll, with more than 
1,300 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and more than 50 Israelis, almost all of 
them soldiers, killed since July 8.

   "We have neutralized dozens of terror tunnels and we are committed to 
complete this mission, with or without a cease-fire," Netanyahu said. 
"Therefore I will not agree to any offer that does not allow the military to 
complete this important mission for the security of the people of Israel."

   An initial Israeli aerial campaign against Hamas was widened into a ground 
offensive on July 17. Since then the campaign has concentrated on destroying 
more than 30 cross-border tunnels that militants have constructed to carry out 
attacks on Israeli territory.

   Israel says that most of the 32 tunnels it has uncovered have now been 
demolished and that getting rid of the remainder will take no more than a few 
days.

   The new reserve call-up follows another day of heavy fighting, in which tank 
shells struck a U.N. school where Palestinians were sheltering and an airstrike 
tore through a crowded Gaza shopping area. At least 116 Palestinians and three 
Israeli soldiers were killed Wednesday.

   Speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not permitted to discuss 
the matter with the press, an Israeli defense official said the purpose of the 
latest call-up was to provide relief for troops currently on the Gaza firing 
line. However, Israeli officials have also said they do not rule out broadening 
operations in the coming days.

   Fifty-six Israeli soldiers and three civilians on the Israeli side have been 
killed since the offensive began, as Palestinians have fired hundreds of 
rockets at Israel -- some reaching major cities -- and carried out attacks 
through tunnels beneath the heavily guarded frontier.

   Israel has called up a total of 86,000 reserves during the Gaza war, which 
it launched to try to end rocket fire from Hamas and other armed groups.

   Israeli attacks in the strip continued Thursday, with witnesses saying that 
munitions struck the Omar Ibn al-Khatab mosque next to a U.N. school in the 
northern town of Beit Lahiya. Israeli fire near another U.N. school in Gaza 
killed more than a dozen people the day before, drawing international 
condemnation.

   The strike in Beit Lahiya early Thursday damaged water tanks on the roof of 
a building near the mosque, sending shrapnel flying into the adjacent school 
compound, where dozens of Palestinians displaced by the fighting had taken 
shelter.

   "The shrapnel from the strike on the mosque hit people who were in the 
street and at the entrance of the school," said Sami Salebi, an area resident.

   Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said at least 15 people were wounded, 
with three of them in critical condition.

   Kifah Rafati, 40, was being treated for shrapnel injuries at the nearby 
Kamal Adwan Hospital. She said she and her six children had been sleeping in a 
classroom facing the mosque when the explosion went off. "There is no safety 
anywhere," she said.

   On Wednesday Israeli tank shells struck a U.N. school in the Jebaliya 
refugee camp where some 3,300 Gazans had crammed in to seek refuge from the 
fighting, killing at least 17 people. The military said it was responding to 
mortar fire coming from the area of the school.

   But Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called the deadly school shelling 
"outrageous" and "unjustifiable," and demanded an immediate humanitarian 
cease-fire.

   "Nothing is more shameful than attacking sleeping children," the U.N. chief 
said.

   The White House also criticized the shelling of the U.N. school in Jebaliya.

   "We are extremely concerned that thousands of internally displaced 
Palestinians who have been called on by the Israeli military to evacuate their 
homes are not safe in U.N. designated shelters in Gaza," said Bernadette 
Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council.

   Later on Wednesday, an Israeli airstrike hit a crowded shopping area in the 
Shijaiyah district in Gaza City, killing at least 16 people, including 
Palestinian video journalist Rami Rayan, who was wearing a press vest at the 
time, and wounding more than 200 people, al-Kidra said.

   Thursday marked a third day of particularly heavy Israeli air and artillery 
attacks, at a time when Egyptian cease-fire efforts appeared to have stalled. 
Israeli media said late Wednesday that Israel's Security Cabinet decided to 
press forward with the operation.

   Egyptian officials, meanwhile, met with an Israeli envoy about Israel's 
conditions for a cease-fire, including disarming Hamas, according to a 
high-ranking Egyptian security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity 
because he was not allowed to discuss the delicate diplomatic efforts.

   Hamas has said it will only halt fire once it receives guarantees that a 
Gaza border blockade by Israel and Egypt -- tightened after the Islamic 
militant group seized power in Gaza in 2007 -- will be lifted.

   Israel says it wants to decimate Hamas' rocket-launching capability, 
diminish its weapons arsenal and demolish the tunnels. It has launched more 
than 4,000 strikes against Hamas-linked targets, including rocket launchers and 
mosques where it says weapons were being stored.

   Israeli strikes have also hit dozens of homes. Mahmoud Abu Rahma of the 
Palestinian human rights group Al Mezan said nearly half of the Palestinians 
killed so far died in their homes.

   Israeli officials have said Hamas uses Gaza's civilians as human shields by 
firing rockets from crowded neighborhoods. Palestinian militants have fired 
more than 2,600 rockets at Israel over the past three weeks.

   However, Pierre Kraehenbuehl, chief of the U.N. aid agency for Palestinian 
refugees, said Israel must try harder to ensure that civilians are not hurt, 
especially in Gaza, where 1.7 million people are squeezed into a small coastal 
territory. His agency has opened 80 of its schools to more than 200,000 
Palestinians fleeing the violence.

   "What maybe the world forgets ... is that the people of Gaza have nowhere to 
go," he said. "So when the fighting starts and they move, it is not as if they 
can cross a border to somewhere."   


(KA)


 
 
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