Israeli troops fought gun battles with Hamas fighters on Monday, keeping military pressure on the Islamist group while avoiding all-out urban warfare that would complicate ongoing diplomatic efforts to end the Gaza war. Medical officials said the Palestinian death toll in the offensive Israel began 17 days ago had risen past 900 and included at least 380 civilians.
Israel says three Israeli civilians, hit by Hamas rockets, and 10 soldiers have died. Along battle lines in the suburbs of the rubble-strewn city of Gaza, Israeli soldiers and Hamas militants engaged in more fierce fighting. Residents and local journalists said Israeli troops and tanks had taken up positions in open areas, seeking to penetrate guerrilla defences in built-up zones that included booby-traps, snipers and fighters with rocket-propelled grenades.
Among targets hit by air strikes were the homes of more Hamas leaders, which Israel said contained weapons stores. But Israeli forces were still holding back from a threatened third stage of their deadliest assault on Palestinian militants in decades - a push into the city of Gaza and other urban areas to add more punch to an air campaign and ground offensive.
At a Washington news conference, US President George Bush said in reply to a question that he hoped the violence would end before he handed over to Barack Obama on January 20. "I'm for a sustainable cease-fire, and a definition of sustainable cease-fire is Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel," Bush said. "I happen to believe the choice is Hamas's to make."
He said Israel had a right to defend itself but should be mindful of "innocent folks" in the Gaza Strip. Israel launched its campaign with the declared aim of halting cross-border rocket salvoes and has drawn international criticism over the Palestinian civilian casualties.
Egypt has been trying broker a cease-fire, which Israel said must ensure that Hamas cannot rearm. Hamas wants Israel to end its air, sea and ground assault and lift its blockade of the Gaza Strip, territory the group seized in 2007. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a candidate for prime minister in a February 10 election, said the surprise bombing of the Gaza Strip at the start of operations on December 27 and an armoured thrust a week later "restored Israel's deterrence".
Morning radio programmes in Israel, however, continued to be interrupted by announcements of "Colour Red" alerts, heralding rocket attacks on towns where residents have only seconds to find shelter before salvoes hit. Ten rockets landed in the first half of the day, the army said. No one was hurt. The Israeli military said its aircraft carried out more than 25 attacks, fewer than on many previous days.
Medical workers said Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians, including at least five civilians, in Monday's violence. The defiant leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip vowed on Monday the Islamists would emerge victorious from the war in the Palestinian territory as Israeli tanks advanced on the main city.