Hopes fade for a 48-hour truce

Israel rejects a 48-hour humanitarian ceasefire in its campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as residents in Rafah flee for safety as rumours of a ground campaign by Israel grow.

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP - DECEMBER 31: Smoke billows from a mosque following an Israeli air raid December 31, 2008, in Gaza City in the Gaza Strip.  Israel continued air strikes within the Hamas ruled Gaza Strip for the fifth day. About 400 Palestinians have been killed in the raids according to reports. (Photo by Abid Katib/Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***  GYI0056416059.jpg
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Rafah Refugee Camp, Gaza strip // Israel yesterday rejected an international proposal that would have set a 48-hour humanitarian ceasefire in its campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, as residents sought safety ahead of expected incursions. The five-day bombing campaign against the militant group Hamas, which has seen the worst violence in the strip in decades, has primarily involved airstrikes against such Hamas-related targets as police stations, security compounds, political offices and the homes of militant leaders.

But Israeli officials, who rejected the European Union-proposed ceasefire claiming it held no assurances that Hamas would halt rocket fire against nearby Israeli towns, have implied that the next stage of the offensive could include a major ground incursion. Such military action would probably cause high civilian casualties in Gaza's densely populated refugee camps and tenements, where more than 1.5 million people live in an area about half the size of Bahrain. The violence did not ebb as Israel conducted nearly 60 airstrikes and Hamas fired more than 50 rockets into Israel. Gaza health officials said yesterday that the five-day campaign had killed at least 390 people, including 200 uniformed members of Hamas and at least 60 civilians; more than 1,600 Palestinians have been wounded. The wounded have overwhelmed Gaza's hospitals, which already lacked medicine and equipment because of an 18-month blockade by Israeli troops.

Hamas, which has nominally governed the Gaza Strip since mid-2007, said it would consider a ceasefire proposal that met certain conditions. "If such a proposition is made to us, we will examine it as we are favourable to any initiative that will put an end to the aggression and totally lift the blockade," a senior Hamas official, Ayman Taha, said in Gaza. Khaled Meshaal, the exiled head of Hamas in Damascus, reiterated the offer to the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in a phone call yesterday. Hamas was ready "to cease armed confrontation but on condition of the lifting of the blockade of Gaza", Mr Meshaal said, according to a Russian ministry statement. Foreign ministers of Arab states, meeting at an emergency Arab League summit in Cairo yesterday afternoon, offered even fewer solutions. The League said it would seek a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza to be followed by a durable truce. The foreign ministers also said they would ask the US president-elect, Barack Obama, to make the Middle East conflict a priority when he assumes office on Jan 20. At the meeting, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al Faisal, said Arab countries could not "extend their hand" to the Palestinians as long as they remained divided between Hamas in Gaza and the Fatah movement in the occupied West Bank, further dashing hopes of arriving at a ceasefire before the new year. An "all-out" war against Hamas could last for weeks, Israel has warned, and it has sent tanks to the border of the territory and authorised the mobilisation of 9,000 reservists.

Rumours of an impending ground offensive sent the residents of the Rafah refugee camp along the Egyptian border into a panic yesterday as families sought to flee the area. Many residents of Rafah live directly on the border with Egypt, along the "Philadelphia" corridor, a no-man's-land typically used by Israeli military vehicles that is crossed by smuggler tunnels below ground. A major incursion into the Gaza Strip would almost certainly include an armoured push through the corridor. "We know what will come," said Abu Mohammed, who led his family of nine towards the centre of town in search of his cousin's home. His wife and children clutched key possessions and looked terrified amid continuing Israeli air attacks nearby. "The tanks are going to come and this time we know it will be serious. I have to protect my family," he added, as thousands of residents streamed around him also in search of safety. After a six-month ceasefire collapsed in mid-December, Israel responded to fresh rocket fire by Hamas and other militant groups with a massive wave of airstrikes on Saturday. Since then, the militant groups have fired hundreds of rockets into southern Israel, killing at least four people and leaving about 10 per cent of Israel's seven million residents scrambling for cover amid the barrages. Israeli planes appeared to target criss-crossing smuggler tunnels leading to Egypt that are used to supply Gaza with everything from food to weapons, witnesses in Rafah said. According to Egyptian press reports, Israeli strikes have destroyed as many as 150 of the estimated 200 tunnels that link Rafah to Egypt. Fighter jets also destroyed the homes of three key militant commanders, including Fawzi Abu Naja, who oversees the Hamas weapons-smuggling tunnels in the area, according to numerous local residents. All three homes were empty and medical officials at the nearby Abu Yousef Hospital said that six people were lightly injured in the attacks. Before the news that the war would continue, thousands of desperate Rafah residents nearly rioted outside a warehouse holding the last remaining food stores in the area. While about 90 per cent of Gaza is dependent on food rations issued by the United Nations, local residents and officials say that no new supplies have been allowed into the Rafah camp, which sits in the far west isolated corner of the Gaza Strip, for 15 days. On Tuesday, the local bakeries ran out of flour for bread, sending thousands of residents out to the streets amid the airstrikes searching for food. But after finding that all the local stores were either closed or empty of goods, they began to gather outside the warehouse of a local trader named Mohammed Abu Taha. Mr Abu Taha had distributed some free food to residents on Tuesday, but when faced with thousands of people demanding help and verging on violence yesterday, he shut the warehouse and began a process of asking residents to sign up for assistance, by including their names and the number of people they support. He then said that he would call individual families and tell them how much they could come and pick up today. "Too many people have come and they are scared and acting violent after waiting many hours," he said. "I only have a little bit left." Ala'a Sharbou, a schoolteacher with five children, said he had not had food in his house for almost 10 days and had come to Mr Abu Taha's facility for the past three days without any luck. "Nowhere in my house can you find bread, or rice, sugar or flour," he said. "Now I come here for three days and wait three or four hours each day." When asked if he feared standing outside for hours amid major Israeli bombing attacks less than a kilometre away, he was fatalistic. "If you don't have food and your children are crying, you will go out to look for food no matter what," he said. mprothero@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Agence France-Presse