GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli warplanes pounded the homes of Hamas leaders and ground troops edged closer to the Gaza Strip’s densely populated urban center Monday, as Israel weighed a decision to escalate its devastating offensive.
Despite the tightening Israeli cordon, militants managed to fire off at least four rockets Monday morning. There were no reports of injuries, though one rocket hit a house in the southern city of Ashkelon.
Black smoke rose over Gaza City’s suburbs, where the two sides skirmished throughout the night. At least six Palestinians died in the new airstrikes or of wounds on Monday, Gaza health officials said. One of the dead was a militant killed in a northern Gaza battle.
The army announced Sunday that it was sending reserve units into Gaza to assist thousands of ground forces already in the territory. The use of reserves is a strong signal that Israel is planning to move the offensive, which Gaza officials say has killed some 870 Palestinians, into a new, more punishing phase.
Israel launched the offensive on Dec. 27, bombarding Gaza with dozens of airstrikes before sending in ground forces a week later. The operation is meant to halt years of Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel. Fighting has persisted despite international calls for a cease-fire. Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers, have died.
Egypt, which often serves as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, has been playing a key role in trying to forge a cease-fire. In Cairo, Egypt’s state-owned news agency reported progress in truce talks with Hamas but provided no specifics.
International Mideast envoy Tony Blair was in Cairo on Monday, meeting with President Hosni Mubarak following talks with Israeli leaders on Sunday. Egypt has put forward a three-stage proposal to end the fighting.
“I think the elements of an agreement for the immediate cease-fire are there,” Blair said, adding that, while more work needed to be done, he hoped to see a cease-fire “in the coming days.”
Israel’s representative to the talks, Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad, was in close contact with Egypt. But in a sign that more work is needed, he postponed a trip to Cairo, officials said.
With Israeli troops surrounding Gaza’s main population centers, Israeli leaders have given mixed signals on how much further the army is ready to push, saying the operation is close to achieving its goals but vowing to press forward with overwhelming force.
“Israel is a country that reacts vigorously when its citizens are fired upon, which is a good thing,” Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni told Israel Radio on Monday. “That is something that Hamas now understands and that is how we are going to react in the future, if they so much as dare fire one missile at Israel.”
Israeli security officials say they have killed hundreds of Hamas fighters, including top commanders. However, there has been no way to confirm the claims, and Hamas officials say the group is determined to keep fighting.
The army also says Hamas has been avoiding pitched battles against the advancing Israelis, resorting instead to guerrilla tactics as its fighters melt into crowded residential areas.
In Monday’s fighting, the army said it carried out more than 25 airstrikes, hitting squads of gunmen, mortar launchers and two vehicles carrying Hamas militants.
It also said ground troops came under fire from militants holed up inside a mosque. An Israeli aircraft attacked the squad, and Israeli troops then took over the mosque, confiscating rockets and mortar shells.
Israeli leaders are expected to decide in the next day or two on whether to push the offensive into a third phase — in which the army takes over larger areas of Gaza. This move would require the use of thousands of reserve units massed on the border with Gaza.
A push into densely crowded urban areas would threaten the lives of many more civilians. More than 20,000 Palestinians have already fled Gaza’s rural border areas and crowded into nearby towns, staying with relatives and at U.N. schools turned into makeshift shelters.
International aid groups have repeatedly said Israel must do more to protect Palestinian civilians, who are believed to make up about half of the dead.
Human Rights Watch has accused Israel of firing artillery shells packed with the incendiary agent white phosphorus over populated areas of Gaza. The chemical, used for creating smoke screens and for illuminating battlefields at night, ignites when it comes in contact with oxygen and can cause serious burns and spark fires as it drifts to the ground in long trails of smoke.
Marc Garlasco, a military analyst working for the rights organization, said he witnessed such shelling from the Gaza-Israel border last weekend. He reviewed AP Television News footage on Monday of similar midair fire that he said was white phosphorus.
“You basically have what looks like the head of a jellyfish and the tentacles coming down on fire,” he said. “It’ll burn for approximately five to 10 minutes, depending on atmospheric conditions and this causes extreme fire and the potential for civilian harm.”
The Israeli army refuses to say whether it’s using phosphorus, saying only it is “using its munitions in accordance with international law.”
White phosphorus is not illegal. Under customary laws of war, however, Israel would be expected to take all feasible precautions to minimize the impact on civilians, Human Rights Watch said.
As soldiers geared up for battle, Israeli President Shimon Peres visited hundreds of reservists at a base in southern Israel on Monday.
“I don’t think Israel has ever had an army better trained, organized and sophisticated than you,” he told them, according to a statement released by his office.
For the time being, the reserve units have been taking over areas cleared out by the regular troops, allowing those forces to push forward toward new targets. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing classified operational strategy.
In addition to Egypt, European envoys have been pressing efforts to negotiate an end to the war even though Israel and Hamas have ignored a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for an immediate and durable cease-fire.
Israel is demanding an end to years of rocket attacks, as well as international guarantees to prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into Gaza through the porous Egyptian border. This complex goal would require Egyptian or international help in shutting off the smuggling routes.
Israel has been bombing tunnels that run under the Egypt-Gaza border.
In an e-mail message early Monday, Hamas leader Ismail Radwan said his group would not consider a cease-fire before Israel stops its attacks and pulls back from Gaza. He also demanded opening of all border crossings, emphasizing the Rafah crossing with Egypt.
That would relieve economic pressure on the destitute territory but also strengthen Hamas control of Gaza, which Israelis fear will allow the group to re-arm.
In Paris, the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, said Monday that European military observers should be sent to Gaza to monitor any eventual cease-fire.
Germany’s foreign minister suggested Sunday that Egypt and Israel were favorable to having international experts deployed at the Gaza-Egyptian frontier to stop arms smuggling. Kouchner, however, said Monday that “neither the Egyptians nor the Israelis want international observers on their territory for the moment.”
Barzak reported from Gaza City and Federman from Jerusalem.