Israel breaks in two northern Gaza towns; at least 23 people killed

Israeli tanks and troops invaded two northern towns not far from the border on Thursday, taking control of a ribbon of land in an attempt to win freedom for a soldier captured by militants and put Israel out of the militants' increasingly longer rocket range.

After sunrise Friday, Israel renewed its assault in northern Gaza with two airstrikes, killing one Hamas militant and wounding three, Hamas and hospital officials said. The military said aircraft fired at four armed Palestinians where there were exchanges of fire earlier. Two were wounded in the second airstrike, hospital officials said.

There was still no word on the fate of Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured June 25 by Hamas-affiliated gunmen who tunneled into Israel and attacked a border crossing post, also killing two soldiers.

Israeli leaders have singled out Hamas as their chief enemy, and the Palestinian prime minister, a Hamas leader, charged Israel was trying to bring down his government.

Interior Minister Said Siyyam of Hamas issued the Palestinian government's first call to arms since Israeli ground forces invaded Gaza last week, appealing to all security forces to fulfill their "religious and moral duty to stand up to this aggression and cowardly Zionist invasion." The security forces are dominated by officers loyal to the rival Fatah Party, and there was no immediate response to his appeal.

Israel insisted it was not planning to reoccupy Gaza, but military commanders said they had orders to win the soldier's release and prevent militants from firing rockets, even if that meant repeated short-term incursions.

Palestinians fired 12 rockets at Israel in the 24 hours that led up to Friday's early morning airstrikes. Six landed in Israeli territory, the military said, and one caused damage in the town of Sderot, just outside Gaza. No one was hurt.

Clashes on Thursday took the highest death toll among Palestinians since well before Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza last summer.

Dozens of Palestinian casualties, most of them militants but including many wounded women and children, crowded the emergency rooms and corridors of Gaza hospitals, already suffering from shortages of medical supplies because of a closure Israel clamped on the territory after the soldier's capture, the AP reports.

After touring Gaza's main hospital Thursday evening, Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas called for international intervention to stop the Israeli offensive, which he called a "crime against humanity."

Haniyeh called the Israeli push "a desperate effort to undermine the Palestinian government under the pretext of a search for the missing soldier." His Hamas movement, with a history of violence against Israel, was voted into power in a January parliamentary election.

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