By George Whitten, BosNewsLife Chief Middle East Correspondent reporting from Israel
JERUSALEM, ISRAEL (BosNewsLife) -- Israeli forces entered Gaza City Tuesday, January 13, battling Hamas militants and marking a new phase in Israel's 18-days offensive that Palestinian medics say left over 900 people dead and thousands more injured.
Witnesses said Israeli ground troops attacked Palestinian militants in the streets of a Gaza City neighborhood early Tuesday, January 13, reportedly destroying dozens of homes. "Terrified residents" were running for cover as gunfire and explosions echoed in the distance.
It was also expected to add to concerns among Christian advocacy groups about the plight of the estimated 3,000 Christians living in the area, who they claim have suffered under both Israeli bombardments and Islamic militant attacks. Earlier, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) tanks shelled areas surrounding Gaza City as they pressed deeper into the area, Palestinian residents said.
The fighting in and around Gaza City came after the IDF said in a statement obtained by BosNewsLife that it struck over 60 Hamas sites including twenty "smuggling tunnels", nine rocket launching sites, and three buildings "utilized by Hamas."
Israeli Defense officials estimate there are 150 tunnels used for smuggling weapons still intact, after Israel claimed it destroyed roughly 200 so far.
Palestinian officials said Tuesday, January 13, over 900 people, including women and children, were killed and 3,500 injured in the operation, but it was difficult to ascertain the actual death toll as Israel has kept away foreign reporters. Media operating in the Gaza Strip are also reporting being censored by Hamas.
Israel has said the death toll may be high in Gaza only because Hamas uses civilians as "human shields" something the Middle East Media Research Institute seems to confirm. The respected Institute translated a video from Hamas parliamentarian Fathi Hammad who said in February 2008, "[The enemies of Allah] do not know that the Palestinian people has developed its [methods] of death and death-seeking. For the Palestinian people, death has become an industry, at which women excel, and so do all the people living on this land."
He said civilians, including "the elderly excel at this, and so do the...jihad warriors and the children. This is why they have formed human shields of the women, the children, the elderly, and the [warriors] in order to challenge the Zionist bombing machine. It is as if they were saying to the Zionist enemy: 'We desire death like you desire life."
Since the start of offensive, 13 Israelis have died, including three civilians killed by rocket fire, Israeli officials said. Israel says it will continue its operation until a "sustainable cease-fire" under which Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel.
Hamas has warned however it will not surrender. "Victory comes to those who believe in Allah and carry out his commandments," said Ismail Haniyeh, a senior Hamas leader in a speech last night, monitored by Worthy News. "We have confidence in Allah because He's on our side. We are nearing victory over the Zionist war machine. After 17 days of fighting, I can say that the Gaza Strip and faith will prevail. With Allah's help, the Palestinian people will prevail over the infidels," he added.
The United Nations Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon has again urged both Israel and Hams to reinstate a ceasefire saying, “They must agree to the elements of an immediate ceasefire. At a minimum, that means a halt to rocket attacks by Hamas militants and a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. It is time to stop. It is time to stop the killing and the destruction."
However in his last press conference as president of the United States, George W. Bush said he understood Israel's actions. "I think Israel has a right to defend herself. Obviously, in any of these kinds of situations, I would hope that she would continue to be mindful of innocent folks, and that they help, you know, expedite the delivery of humanitarian aid."
He said he still hopes a Palestinian state can be created next to Israel. "Most people in the Middle East now accept the two-state solution as the best way for peace. Most Israelis understand there needs to be a democracy on their border in order for there to be long-lasting peace."
Bush said however that the road towards "peace is always complicated by the fact that people are willing to murder to stop the advance of freedom. And so the -- Hamas, or for that matter al Qaeda, or other extremist groups, are willing to use violence to prevent free states from emerging."