GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel unleashed its heaviest air and artillery assault of the Gaza war Tuesday, destroying key symbols of Hamas control, shutting down the territory’s only power plant and leaving at least 128 Palestinians dead on the bloodiest day of the 22-day conflict.
Despite devastating blows that left the packed territory’s 1.7 million people cut off from power and water and sent the overall death toll soaring past 1,200, Hamas’ shadowy military leader remained defiant as he insisted that the Islamic militants would not cease fire until its demands are met.
The comments by Mohammed Deif in an audiotape broadcast on a Hamas satellite TV channel cast new doubt on international cease-fire efforts. Aides to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said Egypt was trying to bring Israeli and Palestinian delegations together in Cairo for new talks in which Hamas would be presented this time as part of the Palestinian team.
Israel’s final objective in Gaza remained unclear a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israelis to be prepared for a prolonged war.
Netanyahu is under pressure from hawkish members of his coalition to topple Hamas in an all-out offensive, but he has not let on whether he plans to go beyond destroying the regime’s rocket launchers, weapons depots and military tunnels, which are used to infiltrate Israel and smuggle weapons.
Dozens of Israeli airstrikes and heavy tank shelling hit areas across Gaza, which was plunged into complete darkness Tuesday night after a strike on its sole power plant set a fuel tank ablaze.
In the sprawling Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, at least 24 people – 10 of them from the same family – were killed and dozens wounded in a barrage of tank fire, Hamas health officials said.
In one incident, shrapnel from a strike in Jebaliya hit near a car with U.N. markings, killing an employee of a U.N. aid agency and his brother and wounding the man’s 12-year-old son, agency spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said.
The Israeli military has said it is targeting Hamas command centers, along with rocket launchers and weapons arsenals, but has not provided explanations when asked about specific strikes in which many members of a single family were killed.
In all, at least 1,229 Palestinians have been killed since the start of fighting July 8, said Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Kidra. More than 7,000 have been wounded, he said.
Israel says it has lost 53 soldiers, along with two Israeli civilians and a Thai national.
Deif, the commander of the Hamas military wing, said fighting would continue.
There is not going to be a cease-fire as long as the demands of our people are not fulfilled, he said.
Hamas has demanded that Israel and Egypt lift a border blockade they imposed on Gaza after Hamas seized the territory in 2007. Over the past year, Egypt has further tightened restrictions, shutting down hundreds of smuggling tunnels under the Egypt-Gaza border that had provided crucial tax income to Hamas. The closure of the tunnels drove Hamas into a severe financial crisis.
The military said Palestinian militants fired at least 64 rockets Tuesday at Israeli cities.
Israel has said its troops will not leave Gaza until they have demolished the sophisticated network of Hamas attack tunnels under the Gaza-Israel border and inflicted major damage on the group’s arsenal and rocket launchers.
Meanwhile, the miserable living condition of Gaza’s 1.7 million people deteriorated even further after two Israeli tank shells struck one of three fuel tanks of Gaza’s only power plant. The hit set off a massive fire, and a column of thick putrid smoke rose from the site for hours.
We need at least one year to repair the power plant, the turbines, the fuel tanks and the control room, said Fathi Sheik Khalil of the Gaza Energy Authority. Everything was burned.
Widespread power outages also disrupt water supplies because electricity is needed to operate water pumps. In Gaza, about 1.2 million have no access to running water, said Sari Bashi of the Israeli rights group Gisha.