Israeli forces draw near Gaza City

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip: Israel pounded rocket sites and tunnels Saturday while its planes dropped leaflets warning of an escalation, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas predicted a “waterfall of blood” unless all parties adhere to the U.N.’s call for a durable cease-fire.

Hamas fighters kept up attacks on southern Israel, launching 15 rockets. And with neither side ready to step down, the death toll in two weeks of fighting rose to more than 800 Palestinians, according to Palestinian medical officials, and 13 Israelis.

Flames and smoke rose over Gaza City amid heavy fighting.

Diplomacy was not finished, but it appeared to be in retreat following both sides’ defiance of Thursday’s U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a halt to fighting. Struggling to keep peace efforts alive, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak invited representatives of Gaza’s Hamas rulers to Egypt for further talks on his cease-fire initiative.

Defying the international calls for a cease-fire, Israel threatened to launch a “new phase” in its offensive.

The leaflets urged Gaza residents not to help Hamas and to stay away from its members.

Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27 to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. A week later, ground troops moved in.

Israeli defense officials say they are prepared for a third stage of the offensive, in which ground troops would push much further into Gaza, but are still waiting for approval from the government.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified information, said the army also has a fourth stage planned that calls for a full reoccupation of Gaza and toppling of Hamas.

The dropping of leaflets appeared to be partly a psychological tactic.

The Israeli military said more than 15 militants were killed in overnight fighting. It said aircraft attacked more than 40 targets including 10 rocket-launching sites, weapons-storage facilities, smuggling tunnels, an anti-aircraft missile launcher and gunmen.

In the day’s bloodiest incident, an Israeli tank shell killed nine people in a garden outside a home in the northern Gaza town of Jebaliya, said Adham el-Hakim, administrator of Kamal Adwan hospital.

The Israeli military disputed the account, saying its forces did not carry out attacks in that area on Saturday.

Israel has come under international criticism for the rising number of civilian casualties. Palestinian paramedics said the nine people killed in the garden were from the same clan and included two children and two women.

“Residents brought them to the hospital in a civilian car. They put them all in the trunk because their bodies were mangled,” Hakim said.

Separately, a woman was killed by tank fire in the nearby town of Beit Lahiya.

The Israeli army has repeatedly accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields and launching attacks from schools, mosques and homes. Earlier this week, an Israeli attack outside a U.N. school killed nearly 40 people. Both Israel and Palestinian witnesses said militants carried out an attack from the area moments earlier.

Palestinian medical officials say roughly half of the more than 800 Palestinians who have been killed were civilians.

Israel and Hamas ignored the U.N. resolution calling for an immediate and durable cease-fire that would lead to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Israel dismissed the resolution as impractical, while Hamas, whose government in Gaza is not recognized internationally, is angry it was not consulted in the diplomatic efforts.

In Cairo, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority president urged both Israel and Hamas to agree to a truce.

After meeting Mubarak, Abbas warned there was no time to waste in ending the bloodshed in Gaza, home to 1.4 million people.

“If any party does not accept it (the truce), regrettably it will be the one bearing the responsibility. And if Israel doesn’t want to accept, it will take the responsibility of perpetuating a waterfall of blood,” Abbas said.

Hamas officials from both Gaza and Syria are also in Cairo for separate talks with Egyptian officials on a truce. Israeli officials were in Cairo earlier this week.

Hamas and Abbas’s Fatah party, which dominates the West Bank, are fierce political rivals, but the president still claims authority over Gaza. Hamas violently took control of Gaza from Fatah forces in 2007.

In Damascus, Syria-based Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, on Saturday rejected any deployment of international observers or troops in Gaza.

A statement issued by the groups after a meeting attended by Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal also rejected any security arrangement that “infringes on the right of resistance against Israeli occupation.”

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