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Israeli Troops Press Into Gaza City

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

The death toll inside Gaza is now approaching 900 with dozens of Palestinians killed over the weekend. Many of them were women and children. Israel kept up its airstrikes today, and there's also fierce ground fighting with Israeli ground troops on the outskirts of Gaza City. NPR's Mike Shuster has more.

MIKE SHUSTER: United Nations officials say, of the close to 900 Palestinians killed in more than two weeks of war, 40 percent are women and children. More than 3,700 Palestinians have been injured, and more than half of those are women and children according to Maxwell Gaylard, the U.N.'s chief coordinator of humanitarian aid.

SHUSTER: It is becoming very clear that the civilian population is bearing the brunt of this conflict. As long as the hostilities continue, civilians remain unprotected, and more will be killed, and more will be injured. This is a conflict where the civilian population has nowhere to go, nowhere to flee.

SHUSTER: That has convinced many in Olmert's cabinet that the operation should be expanded with the goal of crippling Hamas and cutting off the flow of weapons from Egypt through tunnels along what the Israelis call the Philadelphia Corridor - the border between Gaza and Egypt. That's the view of Israeli government minister Zeev Boim.

SHUSTER: We have to enlarge the military operation in Gaza against the Hamas and the terror infrastructure. And we have to consider control of Philadelphia route. Otherwise, we will see in the next round more missiles and long-range missiles.

SHUSTER: Not all of Israel's leaders favor pressing the fight in this manner. Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, is believed to oppose inserting more ground troops deep into Gaza's population centers, where many of the houses conceal bombs and explosive booby traps. Yesterday, Israel's president, Shimon Peres, also expressed a desire to put limits on the operation.

INSKEEP: We don't want to regain Gaza. We don't want to hold the people in Gaza. We don't want to have an endless war. What we want is really an end to the shooting and an arrangement that will prevent the Iranians to send missiles into the Gaza Strips.

SHUSTER: Hamas for its part is also divided. The leaders of Hamas inside Gaza who have been under intense military pressure are believed to be open to negotiations that might lead to a ceasefire. Hamas's political leadership in Syria appears unmovable. Over the weekend, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal issued his demands in a television appearance from Damascus.

SHUSTER: (Through translator) Firstly, an end to the aggression. This is not an equal fight. Secondly, the immediate withdrawal of the occupation from Gaza. Thirdly, lifting the siege on Gaza. Fourthly, the opening of all the border crossings, including the Rafah crossing. These are our demands, and we will deal with any initiative based on these points. We will not accept any initiative for truce whilst we are under attack.

SHUSTER: As a sign of growing Israeli confidence, Israel has reopened schools in many areas within target range of the rockets from Gaza. Mike Shuster, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mike Shuster
Mike Shuster is an award-winning diplomatic correspondent and roving foreign correspondent for NPR News. He is based at NPR West, in Culver City, CA. When not traveling outside the U.S., Shuster covers issues of nuclear non-proliferation and weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and the Pacific Rim.
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