Gaza clashes escalate

Four days of clashes in the Gaza Strip have killed some 100 Palestinians and two Israeli soldiers.

Israeli forces and Hamas gunmen entered their fifth day of fighting Sunday, with clashes in the northern Gaza Strip and Palestinian rocket salvoes against towns in the southern part of the Jewish state.

Palestinians said about 100 people had been killed, most of them civlians. Israeli miltiary sources said two-thirds of the Palestinian dead were combatants.

Two Israeli soldiers and a civilian have been killed in the clashes.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his Cabinet in broadcast remarks that the offensive against Hamas and other terrorist groups would continue. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the objective was to stop Gazan rocket fire.

Those salvoes, enabled by Gaza’s Hamas rulers, have intensified since January, when Israel blockaded the strip in an earlier attempt to stop the rocket fire. It has also reached further north than Sderot, the town besieged by rocket fire in recent months, with hits reaching Ashkelon, a major city. Israel claims that longer-range rockets entered the strip after a breach in the Egypt-Gaza border last month.

The White House called for restraint from both sides, but laid much of the blame on Hamas and its allies.

“We call for an end to violence and all acts of terrorism directed against innocent civilians,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman. “There is a clear distinction between terrorist rocket attacks that target civilians and action in self-defense.”

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to visit the region this week to nudge forward peace talks between Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Palestinian Authority moderates in the West Bank and their Arab allies suggested the intensified fighting could scuttle the peace talks. Israeli spokesmen said the raids were unlikely to expand into a major ground invasion.

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