Israel steps up air strikes as Gaza buries dead

Israel steps up air strikes as Gaza buries dead
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Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza Wednesday as furious mourners buried the wife and child of Hamas's top military commander, baying for revenge as nine days of calm exploded into bloodshed.

Mohammed Deif, who has topped Israel's most wanted list for more than a decade, escaped the strike with Hamas saying he was still alive and calling the shots in the ongoing confrontation.

So far, 20 Gazans have been killed since Palestinian militants launched a barrage of rockets on southern Israel on Tuesday and F16 fighter jets carried out retaliatory air strikes, Palestinian medics say.

The bloodshed pushed to 2,038 the number of Gazans killed in six weeks of the most violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas militants since the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising (2000-2005).

Another 67 people have died on the Israeli side.

The UN says around three-quarters of the victims in Gaza are civilians. Sixty-four of the Israeli dead were soldiers.

Egyptian mediators scrambled for weeks to push the warring sides to agree a decisive end to the bloodshed, but their latest attempts collapsed on Tuesday when the fighting resumed.

Several thousand angry mourners joined the funeral procession for Deif's 27-year-old wife and seven-month-old son in the Jabaliya refugee camp, shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is greatest) and demanding revenge.

Deif heads Hamas's armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, which vowed to open the "gates of hell" on Israel in retaliation for the killings.

Shortly after the funeral, Hamas said Deif was alive and directing operations against Israel.

"Those living around the Gaza border will not return home until Mohammed Deif decides," Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

"Abu Khaled is still alive and leading the military operation," a source close to the Islamist movement told AFP, using Deif's nom-de-guerre.

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman agreed that Hamas was dictating the pace of the conflict, calling for military action to overpower the movement.

"This policy of 'quiet for quiet' effectively means that Hamas is the initiator and the one deciding when, where and how to shoot at Israeli citizens," he wrote on his Facebook page.

"Hamas is controlling the height of the flames and chooses when to disturb life for people in Israel," he said.

"There is no other option other than decisive action with one meaning - toppling Hamas."

- 'Martyr in waiting' -

The mourners, firing Kalashnikovs, buried Widad and her son Ali, who died alongside another woman and a teenager when a missile slammed into a six-storey building in Gaza City late on Tuesday.

It was the first deadly air strike August 10.

Their bodies were wrapped in green Hamas flags and they were carried to the cemetery with the bodies of two men killed in a strike on a motorcycle, both presumed Hamas militants.

Grief-stricken, Widad's father Mustafa Harb Asfura carried his tiny grandson into the mosque then to the cemetery, his body wrapped in a white sheet exposing his white face with an injury to the eye.

"My daughter knew she would die a martyr when she decided to marry Mohammed Deif," he told AFP.

In Israel, Interior Minister Gideon Saar justified the attack, calling Deif -- who has escaped five previous assassination attempts -- a legitimate target.

"Mohammed Deif deserves to die just like (the late Al-Qaeda leader Osama) bin Laden. He is an arch murderer and as long as we have an opportunity we will try to kill him," Saar told army radio.

Among the 20 killed since the truce collapsed were nine children and three women, one of who was heavily-pregnant, said emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra.

That number includes the woman's unborn baby, whom medics tried but ultimately failed to save, he said.

An army spokeswoman said Gaza militants had fired 159 rockets, of which 119 hit southern and central Israel while another 27 were shot down. There have been no reports of casualties or damage.

The army had hit 92 targets across Gaza, she added.

- Truce talks torpedoed -

The violence left Egyptian truce efforts in tatters, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately ordering his delegation back from Cairo.

Israel has repeatedly refused to negotiate under fire.

"The rocket fire which broke the ceasefire also destroyed the foundation on which the talks in Cairo were based," Netanyahu's spokesman Mark Regev told AFP on Wednesday.

Most of the Palestinian negotiators, including delegation head Azzam al-Ahmed, also left Cairo.

"We are leaving... but we have not pulled out of negotiations," Ahmed told AFP, saying the Palestinians had handed a truce proposal to Israel and would not return to Cairo until they received an answer.

The Egyptian foreign ministry expressed "profound regret at the breach of the ceasefire" and said it was working to bring both sides back to the negotiating table.

And Arab League chief Nabil al-Arabi accused Israel of "blocking" all attempts to end the Gaza conflict.

"Israel is blocking any kind of agreement leading to calm" in Gaza, he told reporters.

Meanwhile, Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas landed in Doha ahead of talks on Thursday with Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal for a meeting set up before the ceasefire collapsed, the official QNA news agency said.

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