All-out assault on Gaza looms as 54 die in Israeli incursion

Palestinians fear wholesale invasion after the fighting, some of the fiercest in the region for months
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The increasingly bloody conflict in Gaza escalated ominously yesterday when at least 52 Palestinians, some of them children, and two Israeli soldiers were killed after Israeli ground forces, backed by warplanes, moved into the northern Strip.

The Israeli incursion of at least a mile into Gaza triggered some of the fiercest fighting in months. Many Gazans fear it could be a lethal foretaste of a threatened wholesale invasion to curb rocket and mortar attacks – 48 of which were launched by militants yesterday, with only partial success. The main impact of the Israeli operation, in which another seven IDF soldiers were hurt, was in the town of Jabalya, where a rapidly mounting death toll brought the estimated total of Palestinians killed in Gaza since Wednesday to 68.

About half of those who died yesterday were said by Palestinian observers to have been civilians. Palestinian medics said that another 155 people had been injured, including nine who were in a critical condition. Six Israelis were wounded in longer-range Grad rocket fire that reached as far north as Ashkelon, 11 miles from Gaza. The range and power of the Grad rockets has led to pressure on the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, to launch a full-scale military operation.

Yesterday's carnage will overshadow a visit this week by the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who is seeking to breathe new life into a negotiating process that was already faltering badly. Palestinian negotiators loyal to President Mahmoud Abbas indicated that the talks would be broken off anyway because of the Israeli operation.

The build-up began in earnest on Wednesday, two days after a 10-year-old Israeli boy in the hard-pressed border town of Sderot was injured by a home-made Qassam rocket. On Wednesday morning, an Israeli air strike killed five Hamas militants in Khan Yunis and the Islamic faction launched a barrage of more than 40 rockets into Israeli border communities, killing a 47-year-old mature student.

Israel then responded with an ferocious series of air strikes whose victims included at least five children, culminating in yesterday's air and ground assault on northern Gaza. The Israelis continue to blame militants for civilian casualties, on the grounds that they fired rockets from residential areas. On Friday, Matan Vilnai, the Labour deputy Defence Minister, warned that continued rocket fire would bring on Palestinians "a greater Shoa".

Israeli officials quickly insisted that Mr Vilnai had been using the Hebrew term in its meaning of disaster or catastrophe, rather than its more normal usage as the term for the Holocaust inflicted on Jews during the Second World War.

But the rhetoric was predictably seized on by militant leaders yesterday, with Khaled Mashaal, head of Hamas's political bureau in Damascus, declaring that the attacks claiming the lives of civilians in Gaza were the "real holocaust" and accusing Israel of "exaggerating the Holocaust and using it to blackmail the world".

Of the 48 Qassams, mortars and Grads launched by militants yesterday after the Israeli incursion began, the Israeli military said that only 20 had landed in Israel. At least one family in Beit Hanoun reported a rocket landing on their home after it fell short of the border. While Hamas blamed Israel for the death from shrapnel wounds late on Friday night of a 13-month-old girl, Malak Karfaneh, residents told the Associated Press that a militant-launched rocket had landed close to the baby's house.