Warning of a long conflict ahead

Last updated 01:39 30/07/2014

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Israel knocked out Gaza’s only power plant, flattened the home of its Islamist Hamas political leader and pounded dozens of other high-profile targets in the enclave on Tuesday, with no end in sight to more than three weeks of conflict.

Health officials said at least 30 Palestinians were killed in some of heaviest bombardments from air, sea and land since the Israeli offensive began in response to Hamas rocket fire.

The Israeli assault intensified following the deaths of 10 Israeli soldiers in cross-border attacks on Monday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warning of a long conflict ahead.

Thick black smoke rose from blazing fuel tanks at the power station that supplies up to two-thirds of Gaza’s energy needs. The local energy authority said initial damage assessments suggested the plant could be out of action for a year.

Electricity was cut to the city of Gaza and many other parts of the Hamas-dominated territory after what officials said was Israeli tank shelling of the tanks containing some 3 million cubic litres of diesel fuel.

‘‘The power plant is finished,’’ said its director, Mohammed al-Sharif. An Israeli military spokeswoman had no immediate comment and said she was checking the report.

Gaza City municipality said damage to the station could halt many of the area’s water pumps, and it urged residents to ration water consumption.

A number of rockets were fired from Gaza toward southern and central Israel, including the Tel Aviv area.

At least one was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. No casualties or damage were reported.

Outside pressure has been building on Netanyahu to rein in his forces.

Both US President Barack Obama and the UN Security Council have called for an immediate ceasefire to allow relief to reach Gaza’s 1.8 million Palestinians, followed by negotiations on a more durable end to hostilities.

Efforts led by US Secretary of State John Kerry last week failed to achieve a breakthrough, and the explosion of violence appeared to dash international hopes of turning a brief lull for the Muslim Eid al-Fitr festival into a longer-term ceasefire.

The West Bank-based Palestinian leadership, saying it was also speaking for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, voiced support on Tuesday for a 24-72 hour ceasefire.

But Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the statement by senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Yasser Abed Rabbo did not reflect Hamas’s position.

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‘‘Hamas gave no approval to anything Abed Rabbo said,’’ Abu Zuhri added.

Netanyahu said on Monday the military would not end its offensive until it destroys a network of Hamas tunnels, which Israel says serve as the group’s bunkers, weapon caches and cross-border infiltration routes to attack Israelis.

The Israeli military said 70 targets were struck in Gaza during the night, including four weapons caches it said were hidden in mosques, and a rocket launcher near another mosque. Residents said 20 houses were destroyed and two mosques hit.

HAMAS LEADER’S HOME DESTROYED

The main UN agency in Gaza, UNRWA, said more than 182,000 displaced Palestinians had taken shelter in its schools and buildings, following calls by Israel for civilians to evacuate whole neighbourhoods ahead of military operations. Thousands more have been taken in by friends or family.

Before dawn, Israeli aircraft fired a missile at the house of Hamas Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh, a former Palestinian prime minister, destroying the structure but causing no casualties, Gaza’s Interior Ministry said.

‘‘My house is not dearer than any of the houses of our people,’’ Haniyeh was quoted as saying on a Hamas website.

‘‘The destruction of stones will not break our will and we will continue our resistance until we gain freedom.’’

Hamas, whose internal political leadership is in hiding, said its broadcast outlets Al-Aqsa TV and Al-Aqsa Radio were also targeted. The television station continued to broadcast but the radio station went silent.

The military said the stations were used to ‘‘transit orders and messages to Hamas operatives and to instruct Gaza residents to ignore IDF (Israel Defence Forces) warnings regarding upcoming military activity in specific areas.’’

In a televised address on Monday, Netanyahu said Israel ‘‘must be prepared for a lengthy campaign’’.

The military warned thousands of Palestinians to flee their homes around Gaza City — usually the prelude to major army strikes.

WORLD POWERS DIVIDED

Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Tuesday called Israel a ''rabid dog'' for its attacks on Gaza, and urged Muslims to arm Palestinians to enable them to counter what he termed genocide.

Meanwhile, US lawmakers are pressing the Obama administration to take no action that puts pressure on Israel to halt its military operations.  

About 1087 Gazans, most of them civilians, have been killed in 22 days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip. As well as 53 Israeli soldiers killed, three civilians have died as a result of Palestinian shelling.

In a speech marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, Khamenei criticised the United States and European countries for what he said were their efforts to limit the military capacity of Palestinian fighters in the enclave.

Of Israel, he said: ''This rabid dog, this rapacious wolf, has attacked innocent people and humanity must show a reaction. This is genocide, a catastrophe of historical scale.

"They have been pounding innocent people day and night and these men, women and children are defending themselves with minimum means, and now Americans and Europeans want to take even that away ... so that those merciless beasts could pound without qualm.''

Khamenei denounced what he said was a ruling by US President Barack Obama to disarm Palestinians - an apparent reference to US opposition to efforts by Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, to obtain weapons such as missiles and rockets.

Khamenei said Iran took the opposite view about arming Palestinians.

''Everyone, whoever has the means, especially in the Islamic world, they should do what they can to arm the Palestinian nation ... the Zionist regime deeply regrets starting this (war) but has no way out.''

Khamenei's speech to a crowd of hundreds of thousands in Tehran was broadcast live on state television. Khamenei was accompanied by senior government officials.

On the other side of the world, many US congress members have criticised the administration's effort to halt violence.

House Speaker John Boehner (BAY'-nur) said the administration should ''stand with Israel".

‘‘At times like this, people try to isolate Israel,’’ Boehner said.

‘‘We are here to stand with Israel, not just as a broker or observer but as a strong partner and a trusted ally.

‘‘What does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean issuing vague, on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand statements. No, it means backing up our words and showing solidarity with our friend.’’

This week, legislators will discuss a US$225 million (NZ$265m) request from the Defense Department to urgently bolster Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

Republicans and Democrats are clashing over whether to approve the funds in a larger spending bill or separately, though no one publicly opposes the payments. Senate appropriators already have approved doubling next year’s money for the system.

Israel launched its offensive on July 8 with the aim of halting rocket attacks by Hamas and its allies. It later ordered a land invasion to find and destroy the warren of Hamas tunnels that criss-crosses the border area.

-Reuters and AP

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