Airstrikes continue to target Hamas leaders

More airstrikes rattled northern and southern Gaza early Friday morning as Israeli forces stepped up their campaign against the Palestinian territory's Hamas leaders, reported CNN.

Streets were deserted after sundown in Rafah, along the Egyptian border, as Israeli airstrikes shook buildings a kilometer (0.63 miles) from the target. No running water was available Friday, and stocks of food were running low, CNN Senior International Correspondent Ben Wedeman reported from Rafah.

The latest strikes followed the heaviest shelling of the Palestinian territory since Israel launched its military operation nearly three weeks ago. Israel's push deep into Gaza City triggered heavy battles with Hamas militants, and the third-ranking Hamas leader in the territory died in an Israeli airstrike Thursday, the Islamic militant group reported.

Other bombardments set the United Nations' main relief aid compound afire and damaged a Red Crescent hospital and a foreign journalists' building.

The Al-Quds Hospital, run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society, was hit twice Thursday -- the second time around 10:30 p.m., leaving the facility in flames and forcing the staff and patients to evacuate to the streets. The hospital is located in the Tal Al-Hawa neighborhood, west of central Gaza City.

Meanwhile, Hamas announced that Israeli forces killed Saeed Siam, along with his son and brother, and vowed to avenge his death.

"His blood will be the fuel for the coming victory" according to a statement on Hamas television, Al-Aqsa TV.

Al-Aqsa TV said Siam was killed "in the latest shelling on a house" in Gaza City's Sheikh Radwan neighborhood. It showed images of a body that it said belonged to Siam.

Siam served as interior minister in the Hamas-led government before it was dissolved in 2007. He is considered to be the third most senior member of Hamas' leadership in Gaza, behind former Prime Minister Ismail Haniya and former Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar.

The Israeli military said its aircraft struck a house near Gaza City where it believed three senior Hamas operatives were present, including Siam. It had no details on casualties.

As it stepped up its military campaign, Israel on Thursday also dispatched senior Defense Ministry official Amos Gilad to Cairo to discuss a cease-fire proposal. A Hamas delegation is also in the Egyptian capital, talking with leaders there who are trying to hammer out a temporary truce.

Israeli officials have said that it was likely the Jewish state would increase its military incursion in Gaza as movement toward a cease-fire progressed.

Israel said it initiated the operation into Gaza -- which is controlled by Hamas -- to stop rocket fire on its southern cities and towns. Thirteen Israelis, including 10 soldiers, have died in the operation in Gaza and from rocket strikes on southern Israel, according to the Israeli military. More than 1,000 Palestinians have been killed, including many civilians, Palestinian medics said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is in the region as part of the diplomatic effort to secure a truce. He met with Israeli officials on Thursday, and condemned an Israeli strike that damaged the U.N. Relief and Works Agency's compound in Gaza City that sparked a massive fire and injured three people.

Speaking at a news conference in Tel Aviv with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Ban said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the shelling of the compound "was a grave mistake and he took it very seriously."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert expressed sorrow over the incident, but maintained that Israeli forces were reacting to militant fire near the compound. UNRWA director John Ging denied there were any militants at the compound, and also said that at the time there was "no fighting in the vicinity of the compound."

UNRWA's headquarters -- located in a densely populated neighborhood -- was hit repeatedly by shrapnel and artillery, including white phosphorous shells -- the use of which is restricted under international law, according to Ging. Read an aid worker's diary

Some 700 Palestinians were taking shelter in the compound at the time.

Ging said that Olmert apologized to Ban over the incident.

There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military on the allegation of the use of white phosphorous, but Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev noted that Hamas is also armed with phosphorous shells and have recently fired them against Israelis.

According to the U.S.-based group Human Rights Watch, the use of white phosphorus to obscure military movements is "a permissible use in principle," but the substance can burn civilians and start fires in the densely populated region.

The Israel Defense Forces initially denied using the ordnance. But by Monday, Israeli officials said only that any shells fired in Gaza "are in accordance with international law."

The Foreign Press Association has also complained to Israel regarding the shelling of international news agency offices in Gaza City on Thursday. Palestinian security sources said two employees for Abu Dhabi television were wounded in Thursday's incident.

The head of the International Committee of the Red Cross has also complained to Israeli leaders about the shelling of numerous humanitarian aid facilities, including Al-Quds Hospital run by the Palestine Red Crescent Society in Gaza City that was struck during Thursday's assault, sparking a fire.


The blaze "[risked] the lives of around 100 patients and the medical staff caring for them." the ICRC said.

ICRC president Jakob Kellenberger met Thursday with Livni and Barak to ask that its forces protect medical facilities and give the agency access to all parts of Gaza for humanitarian assistance.

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