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U.N. Security Council debates Gaza violence

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Arab countries called an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to debate the violence in Gaza, demanding in a draft resolution an immediate ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants.

The evening session adjourned without a vote being called and diplomats said negotiations would be held in coming days over the draft, which Western delegates described as unbalanced and focusing almost entirely on Israel's actions.

The resolution, presented by Libya, called for "an immediate ceasefire and for its full respect by both sides." It also demanded protection for Palestinian civilians, opening border crossings into Gaza and "restoration of calm in full."

It denounced "the excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate use of force by Israel" but its only mention of Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel was a vague reference to "the deterioration of the situation in southern Israel."

"It's going to need a lot of work," one Western diplomat said of the resolution.

The council has already issued a statement, which lacks the weight of a resolution, calling for a halt to the violence in Gaza, but it has been ignored. Nearly 400 Palestinians and four Israelis have been killed so far.

The United States says any ceasefire must be durable and binding on the Hamas Islamists who control Gaza, as well as on Israel. The Jewish state, which began air strikes on Gaza on Saturday to try to stamp out the Palestinian rocket fire, has rejected calls for an immediate ceasefire.

Following a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo, an Arab ministerial delegation is expected to arrive in New York early next week to press their case on Gaza at the United Nations, diplomats said.

They suggested a vote would not take place before then.


British Ambassador John Sawers told reporters the draft "needs to reflect the responsibilities of all the parties." But he said a balanced resolution "will have a good chance of securing support across the Security Council."

U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad told the council Washington wanted to see "an immediate ceasefire that is sustainable and implemented by all."

But both he and Israeli Ambassador Gabriela Shalev said the best approach was to reach an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians to end the fighting, then enshrine it in a resolution rather than the council trying to impose a ceasefire.

In the council debate, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, echoed by European speakers, faulted both sides for what he called the "terrifying" conditions in Gaza. He attacked the "irresponsibility" of the rocket attacks and the "disproportionality" of Israel's response.

Arab and Muslim speakers laid the blame on Israel and made little reference to the rockets.

In a harshly worded speech, Libyan Ambassador Giadalla Ettalhi said Israel's attacks and restrictions on aid convoys into Gaza "in their own way represent a crime of genocide."

He urged fellow envoys to adopt the resolution "so that we do not add another Srebrenica (in Bosnia) or Rwanda to the history of this council" -- a reference to massacres in the 1990s that the United Nations failed to prevent.

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Israeli planes strike government buildings in Gaza

GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli aircraft attacked government buildings in the Gaza Strip on New Year's Day and Hamas fired more rockets at Israel after both foes spurned international calls for a ceasefire. Palestinians look at buildings damaged after an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip January 1, 2009. (REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)

Israeli tanks and troops were massed near the border of the Hamas-run coastal territory and the Haaretz newspaper reported on Thursday the Israeli army had recommended a major but short-term ground offensive into the densely populated enclave.

In fresh raids on the sixth day of hostilities, Israeli aircraft and naval forces attacked about 20 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian medical officials said three civilians were killed and 100 people wounded.

Hamas security officials said buildings housing the education and transportation ministries had been virtually destroyed. The Palestinian parliament building was also hit, they said. Gazans who ventured out of their homes walked along rubble-strewn streets to survey the destruction.

Hamas rockets hit the Israeli cities of Beersheba, Ashdod and Ashkelon. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Diplomats said the deadliest conflict in the Gaza Strip in four decades could get even bloodier after days of Israeli air strikes that have killed at least 399 Palestinians, about a quarter of whom, U.N. figures showed, were civilians, and wounded more than 1,700.

Three Israeli civilians and a soldier have been killed by rockets from the Gaza Strip since Israel began an air offensive on Saturday with the declared aim of ending the rocket threat.

Foreign pressure grew on both sides to hold their fire but Israel brushed aside as "unrealistic" a French proposal for a 48-hour truce that would allow in more humanitarian aid for Gaza's 1.5 million residents.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council held an emergency session but adjourned without a vote after Arab countries pushed for a demand for an immediate ceasefire. Western delegates described the Arab-drafted resolution as unbalanced and said negotiations would continue to reach an agreed text.


France said it would host Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday and an Israeli official said French President Nicolas Sarkozy planned to visit Jerusalem on Monday.

Israel Radio said Israeli forces massed at the Gaza border were readying for a possible ground offensive.

"This is only the beginning," Israeli Deputy Defence Minister Matan Vilnai said on Israel's Army Radio.

"We are operating now, for exactly what we have said from the start, and nothing has changed, to deal Hamas a heavy blow. It has already been wounded." He said Israel would insist on an end to all rocket fire from Gaza.

The Gaza operation, launched after a six-month ceasefire expired on Dec. 19 and Hamas intensified rocket strikes, could affect the outcome of the national election Israel is to hold on Feb. 10.

A poll in the Haaretz daily showed a majority of Israelis, 52 percent, favoured pursuing the attacks in Gaza, with just 20 percent backing calls for a ceasefire, and 19 percent favouring the launch of a ground offensive into Gaza.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Israeli attacks must stop before any truce proposals could be considered. Israel must also lift its economic blockade of Gaza and open border crossings.

"After that it will be possible to talk on all issues without any exception," Haniyeh said in a televised speech.

U.S. President George W. Bush spoke by phone to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the White House said. Bush put the onus on Hamas to stop firing rockets as a first step to a truce.

Olmert told his security cabinet that if a diplomatic solution could be found that ensured better security for southern Israel, the government would consider it.

"But at the moment, it's not there," an aide quoted Olmert as saying. "We didn't start this operation just to end it with rocket fire continuing as it did before it began."

Israeli ministers approved the mobilisation of 2,500 army reservists, expanding on an earlier call-up of 6,500 soldiers for the force on the Gaza border.

Rain that could impede an armoured invasion largely cleared on Thursday and forecasters predicted clear skies for the next several days.

Food supplies in Gaza were running low and there were power cuts. Hospitals struggled to cope with the high number of casualties from the offensive.

Israel said it would continue to let humanitarian supplies into Gaza and that more than 90 truckloads with food and medicine would be permitted into the territory on Thursday. A similar amount of supplies went in on Wednesday.

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Israel and Hamas under pressure for Gaza aid truce

GAZA (Reuters) - Foreign powers stepped up calls on Israel and Hamas on Tuesday to halt hostilities after four days of Israeli air attacks on the Gaza Strip and rocket salvoes by the Islamist militants deep inside the Jewish state.

The Quartet of Middle East peace brokers -- the United Nations, United States, Russia and European Union -- urged an immediate ceasefire, a U.N. spokeswoman said after telephone consultations by the group's foreign ministers.

Israeli warplanes destroyed Hamas targets for a fourth day, including five ministerial buildings and a structure belonging to the Islamic University in Gaza City.

Medical officials put Palestinian casualties since the aerial onslaught began on Saturday at 384 dead and more than 800 wounded. A U.N. agency said at least 62 of the dead were civilians. Four Israelis have been killed.

Israeli media quoted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert as saying the Gaza offensive, launched by his centrist government six weeks before an election that opinion polls predict the opposition right-wing Likud party will win, was in "the first of several stages".

Israel says its air bombardments are aimed at ending rocket attacks launched from Gaza, which have caused panic for months in areas where one-eighth of its population lives.

Two rockets fired from the Gaza Strip hit the city of Beersheba on Tuesday, 42 km (26 miles) inside Israel, police said -- the deepest such attack yet by militants, who have launched more than 400 rockets across the border since Saturday, according to an Israeli military assessment.

Three Israelis were killed by rockets on Monday but there were no reports of serious casualties inside Israel on Tuesday.


In Gaza, basic food supplies were running low and power cuts were affecting much of the territory. Hospitals lacked at least 80 essential medicines as well as scores of instruments, Health Ministry official Muawiyah Hassanein said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner proposed Israel accept a 48-hour truce to allow aid into Gaza. France said it would host Livni on Thursday and an Israeli official said French President Nicolas Sarkozy might visit Jerusalem next Monday.

EU foreign ministers called late on Tuesday for an immediate and lasting truce and for humanitarian aid to be let into Gaza.

The EU said it would work with other members of the Quartet, and send a delegation of ministers to the region shortly.

Turkey, Egypt and several other Arab governments are also pursuing their own initiative calling for a ceasefire and reopening of Gaza's crossings with Israel, diplomats said.

Olmert met Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni late on Tuesday to discuss the initiatives, Israel Radio said.

Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev said Israel supported the idea of letting aid into Gaza.

"We want to see convoy after convoy of humanitarian support and we are willing to work closely with all relevant international parties to facilitate that goal," he said.

"At the same time, it is important to keep the pressure up on Hamas, not give them a respite, time to regroup and reorganise."

About 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza, which has one of the highest population densities and growth rates in the world. Most Gazans live on less than $2 a day and up to 80 percent are dependent on food aid, according to aid groups.

Hamas seized Gaza from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's secular Fatah faction in fighting in June 2007. The Islamists have rejected international demands to recognise Israel, renounce violence and accept existing interim peace deals.


Hamas was cool to the idea of a truce. It said the onus was on Israel to stop firing and lift the blockade of Gaza.

"You can't equate the victim and the jailer," Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told reporters. "What is required at this time is an Arab and international effort to stop the (Israeli) aggression and open the (border) crossings."

The White House said President George W. Bush had spoken to Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on Tuesday to discuss how to end the violence.

According to internal Israeli assessments, the air offensive has destroyed a third of the Hamas rocket arsenal but the faction's guerrilla army remains largely intact, Israel's Channel 10 television reported.

"None of us can say how long it will take," Israeli President Shimon Peres said after being briefed at the Defence Ministry about Israel's deadliest Gaza campaign since the 1967 Middle East war, when the territory was captured from Egypt.

Barak said he would seek Israeli cabinet approval for the mobilisation of 2,500 army reservists, compounding an earlier call-up of 6,500 reservists for the garrison on the Gaza border.

Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was due in Syria and Jordan on Tuesday. Al Arabiya television said he would meet Khaled Meshaal, the exiled Hamas leader living in Damascus, although Erdogan's office said no such meeting was scheduled.

Palestinian officials said Abbas would meet Erdogan in Jordan in the evening.

In northern Gaza, two Palestinian sisters were killed in an air raid near their home, medical workers said. The area has been a launching ground for cross-border rocket attacks.

"We are living in horror, we and our children. The situation is not just bad, it is tragic," said Gazan Abu Fares, standing outside his home near the rubble of a building bombed overnight.

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