Babies among dead on Gaza front line

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The Independent Online

Only the bloodstains on their white shrouds spoke of the tragedy that had unfolded. Two Palestinian girls, one just eight months old, were dead. They were killed when an Israeli tank shell struck a house near Jabalya in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Yesterday marked the end of Cpl Gilad Shalit's first month in captivity and Israel stepped up operations inside the Strip in an operation codenamed Sampson's Pillar.

The ferocity of the response to that kidnapping, and the determination of operations to stop Palestinian militants' rockets, saw a barrage of air strikes and raids yesterday that killed at least 19 Palestinians, including three children and a handicapped man.

Israeli shells struck at a rate of one a minute throughout the afternoon, with the buildings of Beit Hanoun shaking under the sustained fire. The army has killed 140 Palestinians since it began its assault. About half are civilians.

Among those killed yesterday were seven loyalists of the governing Hamas militant group and one gunman from the kindred Islamic Jihad faction. Nearly 60 people were wounded, including a cameraman for Palestinian television. Six were in a critical condition.

The mayor of Gaza City has said the Israelis have caused widespread damage in disproportionate retaliation after the capture of Cpl Shalit. Maged Abdul Ramadan, said: "The announced goal is to get the [Hamas] government to collapse. But I know it won't succeed because they never gave the elected government the chance to prove whether they are for peace or not. In the second initifada the situation got bad. Since the new government in March it's got very bad. And since the end of June it's become unbearable."

Saeb Erekat, a senior aide to the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called on the world to remember the plight of the Palestinians despite the conflict in Lebanon. "This is the forgotten war," he said. "We urge the international community to intervene."

Israel's army, which abandoned Gaza in 2005 after 38 years of occupation, said it had carried out strikes against gunmen.

Buzzing overhead, unmanned aircraft fired missiles at militants on the streets, Palestinian witnesses said. Israel also bombed offices used by a Hamas-led force in Gaza City.

Ehud Olmert, the Israeli Prime Minister, rejected demands by militants to free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the release of Cpl Shalit, but said he might consider it later to help Mr Abbas, a moderate.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said: "The Hamas position is clear. There must be a reciprocity of time and action in the process, meaning the soldier gets freed and Palestinian prisoners go free at the same time."