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Civilians take brunt of 7th day of Gaza offensive

MYT 3:32:50 AM

GAZA (Reuters) - The civilian death toll climbed in Israel's air offensive against the Gaza Strip on Friday and Palestinian Islamists vowed revenge for the killing of a senior Hamas leader and his family.

Smoke rises after an Israeli air strike in the northern Gaza Strip January 2, 2009. (REUTERS/Nikola Solic)

There was no sign of a ceasefire on the seventh day of the conflict, in which at least 425 Palestinians have been killed and 2,000 wounded, but a Palestinian official told Reuters that Egypt had begun exploratory talks with Hamas to halt the bloodshed.

The senior Palestinian official, who declined to be named and who has been close to previous talks between Egypt and Hamas, said the aim of the talks included promoting ideas that would culminate in a new truce.

Four Israeli civilians have been killed by Palestinian rockets fired from Gaza, which strike southern cities and towns at random and cause property damage and panic among the local population.

A United Nations agency said the civilian death toll in Gaza was over 25 percent of the total killed in the violence. A leading Palestinian human rights group put it at 40 percent.

Of six Palestinians reported killed on Friday in more than 30 Israeli air strikes, five were civilians, local medics said.

One missile killed three Palestinian children aged between eight and 12 as they played on a street near the town of Khan Yunis in the south of the strip. One was decapitated.

"These injuries are not survivable injuries," said Madth Gilbert, a Norwegian doctor at Gaza's Shifa hospital who could not save a boy who had both feet blown off. "This is a murder. This is a child," he said.

Islamist fighters earlier fired rockets at Israel's ancient port of Ashkelon, one of which blew out windows in an apartment building. Another house took a direct hit from a long-range missile later in the day, and cars were set ablaze.

Gaza militants mourning a hardline cleric Hamas leader killed by an air strike on Thursday along with his four wives and 11 children said all options including suicide bombings were now open to "strike at Zionist interests everywhere".

A FEW ESCAPE

Israel's armoured forces remained massed on the Gaza frontier in preparation for a possible ground invasion, despite international calls for a halt to the conflict. An Israeli naval vessel lying offshore fired at a greenhouse in southern Gaza.

Israeli leaders were in conference on Friday evening and media reports said they were discussing an "imminent" incursion.

The White House said on Friday that Israel must decide for itself whether to go into the Gaza Strip with ground forces, but it cautioned any actions should avoid civilian casualties and ensure the flow of humanitarian goods.

In Gaza City, a few hundred foreign passport holders boarded buses in the pre-dawn murk to quit the Strip, with the help of the International Committee of the Red Cross, their governments and Israeli compliance.

"The situation is very bad. We are afraid for our children," said Ilona Hamdiya, a woman from Moldova married to a Palestinian. "We are very grateful to our embassy."

They left behind 1.5 million Palestinians unable to escape the conflict, a city facing another day of bombs, missiles, flickering electricity, queues for bread, taped-up windows and streets littered with broken glass and debris.

"We will not rest until we destroy the Zionist entity," said Hamas leader Fathi Hammad at the funeral of Nizar Rayyan, the cleric who was killed along with his family.

The bearded Rayyan, who mentored suicide bombers and sent one of his sons on a "martyrdom" mission, was the highest ranking Hamas official to be killed in the current offensive. He had called loudly for bombings in Israeli cities.

Hamas spokesman Ismail Rudwan said that "following this crime, all options are now open including martyrdom operations to deter the aggression and to strike Zionist interests everywhere ... killing begets killing and destruction begets destruction".

PROTESTS AND CLASHES

Bracing for protests and retaliatory violence, Israel sealed off the occupied West Bank to deny entry to most Palestinians and beefed up security at checkpoints.

There were protests by Palestinians in West Bank cities. In Ramallah, Hamas supporters scuffled with the Fatah faction of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, taunting them as collaborators. Elsewhere, protesters stoned soldiers at checkpoints and some were wounded by rubber bullets.

In the Jordanian capital, Amman, riot police fired teargas to disperse hundreds of protesters marching on the Israeli embassy, chanting: "No Jewish embassy on Arab land".

Late on Thursday, Israeli warplanes bombed the Jabalya mosque. Israeli security officials said it was a meeting place and command post for Hamas militants. It said the large number of secondary explosions after the strike indicated that rockets, missiles and other weapons had been stored there.

Nine mosques have had been hit since last Saturday.

"I will pray at home. You never know, they may bomb the mosque and destroy it on our heads," said one man buying humus from a street stand. Another was defiant: "What better than to die while kneeling before God?" he said.

(Additional reporting by Adam Entous, Allyn Fisher-Ilan and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem)

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