Israeli jets and helicopters bombarded Gaza Friday and Hamas responded with a barrage of rockets on two cities as both sides defied a U.N. call for an immediate cease-fire.
One Israeli airstrike killed two Hamas militants and another unidentified man, while another flattened a five-story building in northern Gaza, killing at least seven people, including an infant, Hamas officials said. Israeli aircraft struck more than 30 targets before dawn, and there were constant explosions after first light.
By midday, 19 Palestinians had been killed, pushing the death toll to more than 760 and in the two-week-old conflict, according to Gaza health officials who say at least half of those killed were civilians. Thirteen Israelis have also been killed.
A U.N. Security Council resolution approved Thursday night called urgently for an immediate, durable and fully respected cease-fire, leading to the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. The U.S., Israel‘s closest ally and a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, abstained.
While the call is tantamount to a demand on the parties, Israel’s troops won’t be required to pull out of Gaza until there is a durable cease-fire. The resolution calls on U.N. member states to intensify efforts to provide guarantees in Gaza to sustain a lasting truce, including prevention of illicit trafficking in arms and ammunition.
In Israel’s first official response to the resolution, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert‘s office said the Hamas rockets fired at Israel Friday “only prove that the U.N.’s decision is not practical and will not be kept in practice by the Palestinian murder organizations.”
A Hamas spokesman said the Islamic militant group “is not interested” in the cease-fire because it was not consulted and the resolution did not meet its minimum demands.
Israel launched its assault on Dec. 27 in an attempt to halt years of rocket fire from the Hamas-controlled territory.
Despite the devastating offensive, Hamas has kept up rocket attacks on southern Israel. The rockets fired Friday hit in and around two of the largest southern cities, Beersheba and Ashkelon. Cities within rocket range of Gaza have largely been paralyzed since the fighting began.
The Security Council action came hours after a U.N. agency suspended food deliveries to Gaza, and the Red Cross accused Israel of blocking medical assistance after forces fired on aid workers. It also followed concerns of a wider conflict after militants in Lebanon fired rockets into northern Israel early Thursday, though the border has been quiet since.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. “fully supports” the resolution but abstained “to see the outcomes of the Egyptian mediation” with Israel and Hamas, also aimed at achieving a cease-fire.
Osama Hamdan, a Hamas envoy to Lebanon, told the al-Arabiya satellite channel that the group “is not interested in it because it does not meet the demands of the movement.”
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the U.N. failed to consider the interests of the Palestinian people.
“This resolution doesn’t mean that the war is over,” he told the Al-Jazeera satellite television network. “We call on the Palestinian fighters to mobilize and be ready to face the offensive, and we urge the Arab masses to carry on with their angry protests.”
Israel’s government says any cease-fire must guarantee an end to rocket fire and arms smuggling into Gaza. During a six-month cease-fire that ended with the current operation, Hamas is thought to have used tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border to smuggle in the medium-range rockets it is now using to hit deeper than ever inside Israel.
Hamas has said it won’t accept any agreement that does not include the full opening Gaza’s blockaded border crossings. Israel is unlikely to agree to that demand, as it would allow Hamas to strengthen its hold on the territory which it violently seized in June 2007.
With Israeli troops now in control of many of the open areas used by militants to launch rockets, gunman have continued shooting from inside populated neighborhoods.
The conflict has left hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Gaza increasingly desperate for food, water, fuel and medical assistance, and the situation was expected to worsen as humanitarian efforts fall victim to the fighting.
One of the dead Thursday was a Ukrainian woman, the first foreigner to die in the fighting, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain. He said the woman was married to a Palestinian doctor who trained in Ukraine and returned with her to Gaza. Her 2-year-old son was also killed in the tank shelling east of Gaza City, he said.
Details are emerging of other incidents in which civilians were killed. A U.N. agency said Israeli troops evacuated Palestinian civilians to a house in Gaza City on Jan. 4, then shelled the building 24 hours later, killing 30 people.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report was based on eyewitness testimony. It added details to an incident previously reported by The Associated Press and an Israeli human rights group.
The U.N. agency said 110 people were in the house. The 30 people reported killed is a far higher figure than in other accounts.
The Israeli military had no comment on the report Friday.
The West Bank saw its biggest protests so far Friday, as thousands took to the streets following prayers to express their anger at the Israeli offensive.