GAZA (Reuters) - Israel sent tanks deeper into Gaza on Saturday and threatened to intensify its offensive against Hamas as both sides spurned international calls to end the conflict.
Hamas accused the Jewish state of perpetrating a ‘holocaust’ and fired more rockets into Israel. Its leader in exile, Khaled Meshaal, said the Islamist group would only consider a truce after Israel halted its 15-day-old offensive, pulled out all its troops and opened the coastal enclave’s border crossings.
“I ask you Israelis, what have you achieved from this war you support? What have you achieved except killing innocent children and creating a trace of smashed skulls and a sea of blood drowning Gaza?” Meshaal said.
“What have you achieved except a holocaust your leaders want to win the next Israeli elections with?” Meshaal said, using the term for the Nazi genocide during World War Two that killed some six million Jews. There was no immediate reaction from Israel.
Israeli leaders have pressed on with their offensive despite a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and Egyptian-European efforts at mediation, saying it is intent on stopping Hamas rocket fire into Israel.
As a phalanx of Israeli tanks advanced from the north toward the city of Gaza and aircraft hit targets across the coastal strip, Hamas fired about a dozen rockets at Israel, wounding three in Ashkelon, 20 km (12 miles) north of Gaza.
Israeli forces on Saturday killed at least 26 people, including eight members of one family in the northern Gaza Strip, the Hamas-run Health Ministry said, bringing the Palestinian death toll from the fighting to 843.
Israel has accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields. Thirteen Israelis have been killed since the offensive began on December 27: three civilians hit by rocket fire and 10 soldiers.
In Egypt, efforts by President Hosni Mubarak to broker a ceasefire showed little sign of progress.
“Let Israel pull out first, let the aggression stop first, let the crossings open and then people can look into the issue of calm,” Meshaal said in a televised speech in Damascus.
While Israeli commanders asserted that entire Hamas battalions were being wiped out, Meshaal cited continued Hamas rocket fire as evidence Israel was failing in its objectives.
Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets telling south Gaza residents it was about to step up its offensive.
“In the coming period, the Israeli army will continue to attack tunnels, weapons caches, and terrorists with escalating force all over the Gaza Strip,” the leaflets told residents of the Rafah refugee camp near the Egyptian border.
Israel said an air strike near the Jabalya refugee camp in the northern Gaza Strip killed Amir Mansi, a senior Hamas commander. Palestinian medical workers said one adult and two children were killed but Mansi’s condition was unclear.
Israel denied firing the shell that killed eight members of the Abu Rayya family in Jabalya earlier in the day.
The fighting continued even during a three-hour ceasefire window Israel has observed in recent days to allow humanitarian aid to help sustain the territory’s 1.5 million residents.
Israeli actions have drawn denunciations from the Red Cross, U.N. agencies and Arab and European governments. Campaign group Human Rights Watch accused Israel of using white-phosphorus munitions in Gaza and warned of the risk to Palestinian civilians.
The group said Israel appeared to be using the munitions to make smoke screens to hide military operations -- “a permissible use in principle under international humanitarian law.” But it said the practice should be stopped in densely populated areas.
The Israeli military said it only employs weapons permitted under international law. Human rights organizations have long urged a world ban on white-phosphorus shells, saying they cause undue suffering through severe burns.
Overnight, Israel renewed bombing runs along the so-called Philadelphi corridor that runs next to the Egyptian border. Hundreds of smuggling tunnels are believed to lie underneath.
The United Nations, worried about the deepening humanitarian impact of the war, with more than half Gaza’s population dependent on U.N. food assistance, said it hoped to resume full aid distribution after receiving Israeli assurances that its staff would not be harmed. A U.N. driver was killed on Thursday.
In an attempt to breathe life into a faltering Egyptian-led mediation effort, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah party is a political foe of Hamas, met Mubarak in Cairo.
Afterwards, Egypt said it would not accept foreign troops on its side of the 14.5-km (9-mile) border with Gaza to prevent arms smuggling. Abbas said any forces should be in Gaza itself, not along the border.
Germany, whose foreign minister also met Egyptian officials, said it would send experts to help assess Egypt’s police training needs to bolster anti-smuggling efforts, but Israeli officials remained skeptical.
Israel is demanding a complete halt to Hamas rocket fire, plus regional and international guarantees to stop the group rearming via smuggling tunnels under the Philadelphi corridor.
Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Ari Rabinovitch and Allyn Fisher-Ilan in Jerusalem and Hans-Edzard Busemann and William Rasmussen in Cairo; writing by Adam Entous and Luke Baker; editing by Mark Trevelyan