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Israel presses Gaza offensive after 20 killed

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Gaza, Jul 7: Israeli forces dug in across a swathe of the northern Gaza Strip today after the bloodiest day of fighting with militants in nearly two years left 19 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier dead.

The army pushed deep into the territory yesterday, taking over areas that Israel abandoned last year on an offensive launched with the aim of bringing home a captured soldier and halting rocket fire into the Jewish state.

The incursion has piled more pressure on the Palestinian government of the Hamas Islamist militant group, already reeling from a Western aid embargo. Any lingering hope that peace talks could be revived has been dashed by the violence.

The Israeli army said it had carried out two air strikes against militants near the town of Beit Lahiya in northern Gaza, killing four. Witnesses and medics said six Palestinian civilians died in one of the deadliest strikes yesterday.

Beit Lahiya was also the scene of heavy ground fighting, with gunmen from various Palestinian factions fighting running battles with Israeli troops backed by tanks and helicopters.

Both sides prepared for more bloodshed. A shell hit an empty building of one of the Palestinian security forces. Israeli helicopters circled above. Edgy gunmen scurried through side streets and prepared bombs to attack any Israeli advance.

''What is happening on Palestinian land is a crime against humanity,'' said Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas on a visit to the wounded. ''The Israeli killing machine must stop.'' Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert ordered tanks deep into Gaza after Hamas militants fired rockets into a major Israeli city for the first time. The offensive began last week with the main goal of winning the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, captured in a raid from Gaza on June 25.

''I don't know if we will succeed to free Gilad or if we will stop the rocket fire,'' said Tzachi Hanegbi, a senior member of Olmert's Kadima party.

''The policies are aimed at making clear that Israel's patience has been tested, that it has a right to self defence and that the price it has paid is intolerable.'' Despite taking over what amounts to a buffer zone inside Gaza, Israeli officials say that there is no plan for long term re-occupation of territory given up last year after 38 years of military rule.

FORMER SETTLEMENTS

The rubble of former Jewish settlements has often been used for firing rockets into Israel. Defying the Israeli presence, militants launched several overnight.

A Palestinian security source said over 100 tanks had crossed into Gaza with more amassing outside.

The longer an offensive goes on, the more likely Israel will come under international pressure to pull back.

At the United Nations in New York, Arab states asked the Security Council to demand that Israeli forces immediately withdraw from Gaza, but France and the United States criticized their proposed resolution as unbalanced.

The immediate trigger for expanding the offensive was Tuesday's rocket strike on Ashkelon, 12 km (7 miles) from Gaza, and the furthest point reached by one of the makeshift missiles that spread panic but cause few casualties.

Israeli leaders would be quite happy if the operation resulted in the fall of Hamas, whose charter calls for Israel's destruction, but there is little idea of what might take the place of the Islamist group.

Hamas accuses Israel of using Shalit's abduction as a pretext to topple its elected administration. Israel has detained more than one-third of Haniyeh's cabinet and hinted it could assassinate Hamas leaders if Shalit is killed.

Twenty-seven Palestinians, the majority of them militants, have been killed since the offensive began.

REUTERS

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