Israel lets Palestinians flee; UN warns of crisis

Israel lets Palestinians flee; UN warns of crisis A Palestinian carries the body of one of the children of Hamas leader Nizar Rayan. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

EREZ CROSSING, Israel (AP) —Israel allowed several hundred Palestinians with foreign passports to flee Gaza on Friday, even as its warplanes bombed a mosque it said was used to store weapons and destroyed homes of more than a dozen Hamas operatives.

The evacuees told of crippling shortages of water, electricity and medicine, echoing a U.N. warning of a deepening humanitarian crisis in the besieged Gaza Strip in the seven-day-old Israeli campaign. The U.N. estimates at least a quarter of the 400 Palestinians killed by Israeli airstrikes on Hamas militants were civilians.

Jawaher Hajji, a 14-year-old U.S. citizen who was allowed to cross into Israel, said her uncle was one of them—killed while trying to pick up some medicine for her cancer-stricken father. She said her father later died of his illness.

“They are supposed to destroy just the Hamas, but people in their homes are dying too,” Hajji, who has relatives in Virginia, said at the Erez border crossing between Gaza and Israel.

President George W. Bush on Friday branded the Hamas rocket attacks an “act of terror,” while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice accused Hamas’ leaders of holding the people of Gaza hostage.

“The Hamas has used Gaza as a launching pad for rockets against Israeli cities, and has contributed deeply to a very bad daily life for the Palestinian people in Gaza and to a humanitarian situation that we have all been trying to address,” she said.

International calls for a cease-fire have been growing, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy is expected in the region next week.

Bush said no peace deal would be acceptable without monitoring to halt the flow of smuggled weapons to terrorist groups.

“The United States is leading diplomatic efforts to achieve a meaningful cease-fire that is fully respected,” Bush said Friday in his weekly radio address, released a day early. “Another one-way cease-fire that leads to rocket attacks on Israel is not acceptable. And promises from Hamas will not suffice—there must be monitoring mechanisms in place to help ensure that smuggling of weapons to terrorist groups in Gaza comes to an end.”

Israel has targeted Hamas leaders in the past but halted the practice during a six-month truce that expired last month. Most of Hamas’ leaders went into hiding at the start of the Israeli offensive on Dec. 27.

Israeli troops in bases in southern Israel are awaiting orders to invade Gaza.

Exiled Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, speaking in Syria, warned that any ground assault would lead Israel to “a black destiny of dead and wounded.”

However, he said Hamas was “ready to cooperate with any effort leading to an end to the Israeli offensive against Gaza, lifting the seige and opening all crossings.”

Israel appears to be open to the intense diplomatic efforts by Arab and European leaders, saying it would consider stopping its punishing aerial assaults if international monitors were brought in to track compliance with any truce with Hamas.

Israel began its campaign to try to halt weeks of intensifying Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza. The offensive has dealt a heavy blow to Hamas but has not stopped the rockets, which continue to strike deeper and deeper into Israel. Three Israeli civilians and one soldier have been killed in the rocket attacks.

More than 30 rockets were fired into southern Israel on Friday, slightly injuring four. Sirens warning Israelis to take cover when military radar picks up an incoming rocket have helped reduce casualties in recent days.

Israeli TV showed video of a table set for the traditional Sabbath meal covered with shrapnel and broken glass.

After destroying Hamas’ security compounds early in the operation, Israel has turned its attention to the group’s leadership. Israeli warplanes on Friday hit about 20 houses believed to belong to Hamas militants and members of other armed groups, Palestinians said.

Israel also bombed a mosque it said was used to store weapons. The mosque was known as a Hamas stronghold and was identified with Nizar Rayan, the Hamas militant leader killed Thursday when Israel dropped a one-ton bomb on his home.

Rayan, 49, ranked among Hamas’ top five decision-makers. The explosion killed 20 people, including all four of Rayan’s wives and 11 of his children.

Israel’s military said the bombing of Rayan’s house triggered secondary explosions from the weapons stockpile there.

Fear of Israeli attacks led to sparse turnout at Friday’s communal prayers at mosques throughout Gaza. Still, thousands attended a memorial service for Rayan, with throngs praying over the rubble of his home and the nearby destroyed mosque.

An imam delivered his sermon over a car loudspeaker as the bodies of Rayan and other family members were covered in green Hamas flags. Explosions from Israeli airstrikes and the sound of warplanes could be heard.

Following the prayers, mourners marched with the bodies, with many people reaching out to touch and kiss them.

“The Palestinian resistance will not forget and will not forgive,” said Hamas lawmaker Mushir Masri. “The resistance’s response will be very painful.”

Israel also destroyed homes of more than a dozen Hamas operatives. Most appeared to be empty, but one man was killed in a strike in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza.

Fourteen other Palestinians died Friday—killed in airstrikes or dying of wounds from earlier violence, officials said. Among them were two teenagers as well as three children—two brothers and their cousin—who were playing in southern Gaza, according to Health Ministry official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain.

Maxwell Gaylard, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the Palestinians Territories, said 2,000 people have been wounded in the past week and a “significant number” of the dead were women and children. “There is a critical emergency right now in the Gaza Strip,” he said.

The U.N. World Food Program began distributing bread in Gaza to Palestinian families. It said there had been a drastic deterioration in living conditions, with shortages of food, cooking gas and fuel, as well as frequent power cuts.

Israel denies there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and has increased its shipments of goods into Gaza. It says it has confined its attacks to militants while trying to prevent civilian casualties.

The military has called some houses ahead of time to warn inhabitants of an impending attack. In some cases, aircraft also fired sound bombs to warn away civilians before flattening the homes with their missiles, Palestinians and Israeli defense officials said.

Israeli planes also dropped leaflets east of Gaza giving a confidential phone number and e-mail address for people to report locations of rocket squads. Residents appeared to ignore the leaflets.

In all, Israel allowed 270 Palestinians to cross the border from Gaza to flee the fighting. The evacuees all held foreign passports, and were expected to join their families in the U.S., Russia, Turkey, Norway, Belarus, Kazakhstan and elsewhere.

Nashwa Hajji, Jawaher’s 13-year-old younger sister, said her family left their home following Israeli warnings, but others refused. “People said, ‘We don’t want to go. We will die where we are,'” she said.

The Hajji family was notified Thursday by the U.S. consulate that it was being evacuated. After crossing Erez, they and others boarded buses taking them to Amman, Jordan. Hajji said she, her mother and five siblings would fly to Virginia from there.

The State Department said it had assisted 27 U.S. citizens and members of their immediate families to leave Gaza on Friday and make their way to Jordan and stood ready to help others. Department officials said earlier this week they were aware of roughly 30 Americans in Gaza but that there could be others.

Many of the evacuees were foreign-born women married to Palestinians and their children. Spouses who did not hold foreign citizenship were not allowed out.

“I feel happy and sad,” said Caroline Katba, 15, A Russian citizen. “Happy, because I am going to Russia, and sad, because my father is left behind.”