Israeli troops stepped up attacks on Hamas fighters on the outskirts of Gaza City on Monday as the Palestinian death toll surpassed 900 and Hamas militants managed to fire off a new volley of rockets into southern Israel.
On the 17th day since Israel launched its offensive into the Gaza Strip, the conflict appeared to be reaching a crucial threshold that could result in escalated combat or a negotiated resolution.
In a televised statement from a hide-out presumed to be in Gaza, a top leader of the battered Hamas regime mixed defiance with language suggesting openness to diplomacy. Ismail Haniyeh, who served as prime minister under a previous Palestinian unity government, looked weary and cited Koranic verses and prayers during the speech aired by Hamas-run television, his second since the conflict began.
"We deal positively with any initiative that can end the aggression and allow the withdrawal of the occupation troops and end the siege so that we can stop the bloodshed," Haniyeh said.
But he added: "I am confident that we will reach the point we want, which is victory and the defeat of this aggression. So I want to salute our fighters in the field. We tell them: We kiss your heads and hands and the land underneath you; you are defending the dignity of our people and nation."
Israeli security officials say the Israeli onslaught has caused an increasing number of Hamas combatants to give up the fight and melt into the population, while others hole up in complexes of subterranean bunkers. Top Hamas figures are hiding in a bunker underneath a Gaza City hospital because they believe Israel will not bomb the medical facility, the officials said.
Meanwhile, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair arrived in Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, a key player in diplomatic efforts to reach a negotiated solution that would end the fighting in Gaza. Israel wants Egypt and the international community to shut down the smuggling tunnels along Gaza's southern border that provide Hamas with rockets used in attacks into Israel.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Monday described the talks in Cairo as negotiations "against Hamas and not with it." Israeli leaders say they are determined to pursue the offensive until a security arrangement ensures an end to Hamas rocket attacks.
"I have no intention of negotiating with Hamas, and I don't need them to sign some paper, and what Hamas has to say is meaningless," Livni said in an interview with Army Radio. "This is called deterrence: They know that the next time they attack us they will be hurt."
Monday, Israeli troops moved into the northern and southern outskirts of battered Gaza City, according to United Nations officials and witnesses. But the military did not move into the city center, where close-quarters combat would further endanger civilians.
Aerial bombardment, artillery barrages and firing from naval vessels continued, targeting the Tuffah neighborhood in the north of Gaza, U.N. officials said. Israeli aircraft hit 25 targets, including eight squads of armed militants, two mortar launchers and two vehicles driven by Hamas fighters, Israeli military officials said.
In one clash Monday, Israeli soldiers exchanged fire with Hamas fighters barricaded in a mosque and later found a stockpile of rockets and mortar shells at the site, according to Israeli military officials.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health reported Monday that the death toll had risen from 884 to 910, according to an update from United Nations officials in Gaza. The dead include 292 children and 75 women, the officials said. The number of injured Palestinians stood at 4,250, of whom 1,497 are children and 626 are women.
Israel has suffered 13 dead: 10 soldiers, four of them by "friendly fire," and three civilians by Hamas rockets.
Despite the Israeli aerial and ground assault, Hamas fighters fired at least 20 rockets into southern Israel, striking a house in the city of Ashkelon, Israeli authorities said. There were no casualties.
The high number of Palestinian civilian casualties has triggered angry criticism of Israel from the Arab world and beyond. But Israeli officials accuse Hamas militants of entrenching themselves in highly populated areas and mounting attacks that turn women and children into human shields.
More than 28,000 Palestinian civilians have been displaced, inundating makeshift refugee centers. U.N. officials said they had opened up two more shelters Monday.
In the Zeitoun neighborhood of southeast Gaza City, a family of 10 fled their home Monday for the second time. Khalil Reesha, 43, a tailor, took advantage of the three-hour "humanitarian lull" granted by Israeli forces each day to flee with his wife, five sons and three daughters. He explained that the family had left at the beginning of the hostilities to stay with relatives, then returned just as the ground offensive intensified.
"We stayed for 10 days, but for our bad luck we went back to our house yesterday and last night was one of the most difficult nights," he said. "The shelling was continuous all night."
The Palestinian Red Crescent Society suspended activities in the Zeitoun area Sunday after gunfire injured two ambulance personnel. On Monday, Israeli state radio reported that the military was considering setting up a field hospital in the Gaza Strip or just across the border in Israel to treat Palestinian civilians.
Abu Alouf is a special correspondent.