Israel holds off Gaza ground assault as world urges calm

Arab League to discuss, and to formulate a common stance on Middle East crisis

JERUSALEM – Israel kept up its punishing raids on Gaza on Monday but held off from a threatened ground incursion as the world intensified efforts to hold a truce.

With Israel's campaign to halt cross-border rocket fire entering its seventh day, the Arab League was to hold an emergency meeting to discuss moves to end the shedding of Palestinian civilians' blood and formulate a common Arab stance on the crisis.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on Israel to scrap plans for a ground offensive, saying too many Palestinian civilians had been killed as the death toll from its punishing air campaign hit 172, with another 1,230 wounded. The Gaza-based Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) has said more than three-quarters of the victims were civilians.

But, despite preparations for a possible ground attack, Israel appeared to be holding off with media reports saying that ministers attending a Sunday evening meeting of the security cabinet had decided against putting boots on the ground -- for the time being. During the night, Israeli warplanes struck more than 40 sites, killing two people, and artillery pounded the north where Israel warned residents to flee for their lives ahead of a major operation.

Over the past 24 hours, more than 17,000 Palestinians, most of them from northern Gaza, have packed into a handful of schools run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees in a bid to seek some respite from the bombing. Inside the New Gaza Boys School in Gaza City, every classroom was packed full of people, with blankets strung across doorways to provide some privacy.

"We feel safer here, but the situation is tough, there's very little food and water and nothing for the children to do. We're sleeping on the tiles of the classroom floor," said 27-year-old Rehab, from Beit Lahiya. "When Hamas leaders come out of their hiding places, they will see the scale of destruction and damage we have caused them, which will cause them to regret ever beginning this round of fighting against Israel," Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a statement.

Early Monday, the army said it had used Patriot surface-to-air-missile to shoot down a drone (UAV) off the Ashdod coastline, 28 kilometres (17 miles) north of Gaza. Hamas's armed wing took responsibility for the drone in a Hebrew-language posting on Twitter, which said it had launched a number of UAVs deep inside the Zionist enemy entity, pledging to give further details later.

With a growing number of Palestinian civilians among the dead, international efforts to end the bloodshed have taken on a renewed sense of urgency. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has called for the United Nations to put the state of Palestine under international protection due to the worsening violence in Gaza, with the bid to be discussed at Monday's Arab League meeting in Cairo.

Saudi Arabia pledged $53.3 million to pay for medicine and medical equipment to treat the victims of the Gaza crisis, a minister announced late Sunday, saying the aid would be transferred through the Palestinian Red Crescent.


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