Israeli troops fought heavy battles with Hamas fighters in two densely populated Gaza towns today as the Army sought to split the strip into three sections to cut off the Islamist group’s supply lines.
Thirty Israeli troops were injured, two seriously, and dozens of Palestinian fighters were killed, the military said. Hamas said that it had captured two soldiers, but the Israeli Defence Force would not confirm the claim, adding that it could be a propaganda ploy.
The Israeli strategy of splitting Gaza into north, central and southern sections mirrors a similar tactic employed when settlers used to come under attack in the strip.
It enables the military to stop Gaza City being supplied from the south, stops Hamas movements and gives troops distinct areas to clear.
Israeli troops also took up positions in the old Jewish settlement of Netzarim which controls the main north-south road.
In Gaza City an explosion hit Palestine Sq the main shopping area, close to a market, killing five people and badly injuring dozens.
A Times reporter at Shifa hospital saw six ambulances and seven cars – there is a shortage of emergency vehicles – arrive with the wounded. One was a badly maimed teenage girl and a man missing body parts.
Tanks supported by helicopter gunships battled around Gaza City and in the northern towns of Beit Lahiyah and Beit Hanoun as well as Jabaliya, a Hamas stronghold.
Flames shot high into the sky after the Israeli air force bombed a gas depot near Beit Lahiyah, causing a deafening explosion. A huge fire raged at the depot, on a main road through Gaza, following the strike on the private business which supplies cooking gas to the local population.
Flares streamed into the sky and exploded like fireworks, lighting up the overcrowded territory. Residents in Gaza City reported heavy bombing which appeared to have cut electricity supplies.
Tzipi Livni, the Israeli Foreign Minister and candidate for prime minister, threatened further escalation if Hamas hit back.
“The moment they fire we will respond with great force,” she said. “It could be that several operations will be needed.”
Ehud Barak, the Defence Minister, said: “We are not war hungry but we shall not allow a situation in which our villages, towns and civilians are constantly targeted by Hamas.
“We restrained ourselves for a long time but now is the time to do what needs to be done.” The operation, he said, “won’t be easy and it won’t be short, but we are determined.”
In a veiled warning to Hezbollah, the Islamist militia in Lebanon, he said: “We hope the northern front will remain calm, but we are prepared for any possibility.”
Hamas remained defiant, warning the Israeli army would pay a “high price.”
“Your incursion into Gaza will not be a walk in the park and Gaza will become your cemetery,” Ismail Radwan, a Hamas spokesman said.
Inside Gaza, Israeli special forces of the Shaldag (kingfisher) and Duvdevan (cherry) units were tracking down leading figures in the military leadership of Hamas. Israeli military planners would like to “behead” the organisation without becoming entangled in a prolonged occupation.
An Israeli airstrike yesterday killed Abu Zakaria al-Jamal, a senior Hamas military commander. Later, in one of at least 30 airstrikes on Gaza, 16 Palestinians including four children died when an Israeli jet bombed a mosque in Jabaliya.
France led international criticism of the invasion although a specially convened UN Security Council meeting failed to come to agreement on the crisis, after the US thwarted an effort by Libya to persuade the UNSC to call for an immediate ceasefire.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the invasion a “dangerous military escalation” that would undermine attempts to broker a ceasefire.
“France condemns the Israeli ground offensive against Gaza just as it condemns the continuing firing of rockets,” Mr Kouchner said in a statement.
Nicolas Sarkozy will meet Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian President in the West Bank tomorrow and is also due to meet Ehud Olmert in Jerusalem. He will also visit Lebanon and Egypt.
Gordon Brown called today for an immediate ceasefire to halt the violence. The Prime Minister said the ongoing hostilities were a matter of “grave concern” and insisted that international pressure was being placed on both Israel and Hamas.
Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, also urged an immediate end to the ground offensive.
But President Bush called on Hamas “to turn away from terror” and rejected calls for a unilateral ceasefire that he said would allow the Islamists to continue hitting Israel with rockets.
During the Israeli army’s Operation Cast Lead, over 460 Palestinians have been killed. More than 2,100 have also been wounded. Hamas has launched more than 400 rockets, killing four Israelis.