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Palestinians Flee Homes, Israel Pounds Gaza City

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne. Gaza City was the scene of panic this morning as Israeli forces made their biggest push yet into the city's crowded neighborhoods. At the same time, cease-fire talks are still going on. In a moment, we'll have an update on the diplomatic efforts taking place in Egypt. First we'll hear about the intense fighting on the ground. One of the places hit was the United Nations compound in Gaza City. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Overnight and today, Israeli tanks and infantry forces fought their way into Tal al-Hawa, a neighborhood in the southwest corner of Gaza City. Across much of Gaza City today, the sound of machine guns, air strikes, and drones again can be heard.

(Soundbite of explosions)

WESTERVELT: This morning, witnesses say large groups of civilians in the south of the city and in other parts are now fleeing their homes as Israeli ground troops, backed by attack helicopters, move deeper into crowded residential areas. Here's NPR news assistant Ahmed Abu Hamda in Gaza City.

Mr. AHMED ABU HAMDA (Palestinian News Producer): As we heard from some witnesses, today morning thousands of people who used to live in the south of Gaza City in Tal al-Hawa area, that thousands of them, they started to evacuate, to run away, trying to find a safe place for them and for their families. Now I'm standing here in what's called Shawah and Hussari(ph) building. It's in the middle of the city. And I can see that the whole sky of Gaza City, it's full of black condensed smoke, all of Gaza City. It's very choking atmosphere even.

WESTERVELT: The main United Nations compound in central Gaza City was hit today by what U.N. officials say was Israeli fire. The U.N. compound is now burning. In Jerusalem, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon expressed outrage at the attack and said the death toll in Gaza had now reached an unbearable point. It's likely today's ground and air attacks deeper into the city are an attempt by the Israelis to make last-minute gains and pressure Hamas as cease-fire talks in Cairo intensify.

The Palestinian Health Ministry says more than one thousand people in Gaza have been killed so far, and more than 400 of the dead are women and children. According to the Israeli human rights group Bet'selem, in 20 days in Gaza, the Israeli military has now killed more Palestinians than in any single year this decade.

On Wednesday, a coalition of nine Israeli human rights groups called for a probe of whether the Israeli military had committed war crimes in the Gaza attack. Fred Abrahams with Human Rights Watch says both Hamas and Israel have likely violated the rules of war. But he notes that researchers continue to be denied access to Gaza.

Mr. FRED ABRAHAMS (Senior Emergencies Researcher, Human Rights Watch): We're getting serious and consistent allegations of violations of the laws of war. But you need to investigate. You need to find out where was Hamas? Were they among the civilian population? What type of weapon did Israel use? Did they take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian harm? Those are the kinds of research that must be done on the ground. And we're blocked. We can't get in, along with the media.

WESTERVELT: Three Israeli civilians have been killed by rocket fire, but none in more than two weeks. On Wednesday, 16 rockets were fired into Israel with no serious injuries reported. But the number of daily rocket attacks by Hamas is down significantly from the start of the Israeli offensive. The Israeli military death toll remains 10, half of them by friendly fire accidents. The Israelis continue to be able to move at will across large parts of the coastal territory. In fact, during nearly three weeks of combat, it appears Hamas fighters have not been able to mount serious resistance or a significant counterattack.

Professor GERALD STEINBERG (Political Studies, Bar Ilan University): They certainly fell into the trap that often happens in the Middle East of believing your own propaganda.

WESTERVELT: That's Israeli analyst Gerald Steinberg of Bar Ilan University. He calls the Israeli human rights abuse allegations exaggerated and political. Steinberg says the Israeli leadership is up against a political clock. They'd like to end the fighting before President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in next Tuesday.

Professor STEINBERG: It would be good to have a new page when - a semi-new page, nothing's new in the Middle East. But if you have the pictures of the inauguration combined with a lot more fighting in Gaza and outside, that would take some of the sheen off the Obama inauguration. So Israel's very conscious of that.

WESTERVELT: But for many of the civilians of Gaza and Israelis in towns across the south, it's far more than an issue of image and politics. They want the violence and bloodshed to stop. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eric Westervelt
Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.