James Hider & Sheera Frenkel
London Times 
Saturday, Jan 3, 2008
Israel is poised for a big ground offensive in the Gaza Strip after allowing hundreds of foreigners to leave the devastated territory.
The Times understands that Israeli troops and tanks will imminently be operating inside the area as part of large-scale operation to prevent Hamas from firing rockets into southern Israel.
One of the main thrusts of the attack could be the so-called Philadelphi Road that runs along Gaza’s border with Egypt, under which Hamas has smuggled arms, missiles and men through a network of tunnels. Israel controlled the border until its army withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005.
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A week of airstrikes has killed at least 430 Palestinians and left scores of buildings as rubble, despite diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire. Hamas rocket attacks have killed four Israelis since the fighting began.
Despite the looming onslaught, the rocket squads fired yet more projectiles into southern Israel yesterday. Hamas vowed that its barrage, which has lasted for years and which finally provoked the Israeli campaign, would not stop. “I call on the resistance to continue pounding Jewish settlements and cities,” said Sheikh Abdelrahman al-Jamal at the funeral of Nizar Rayyan, a Hamas political leader killed, together with his four wives and 11 children, in an Israeli airstrike on his home. “We will remain on the path of jihad until the end of days.”
The funeral was held outdoors because an earlier air raid had smashed the mosque where the service had been due to take place. Israel said that the building had been used to stockpile weapons.
Among the mounting Palestinian death toll yesterday were three young brothers, aged 7 to 10, who were killed in one of the 30 or so strikes carried out by Israeli warplanes. All along the border, Israeli tanks and troops have turned fields into muddy, makeshift camps from which to launch their offensive. The Government has already mobilised more than 6,000 reserve troops and has given the green light to call up almost 3,000 more. Artillery barrages were also fired into the strip, while aircraft bombed the open ground that the hundreds of troops will need to cross, and where Hamas has placed mines and dug tunnels to outflank the invaders.
Support for Operation Cast Lead remains high in Israel, with polls showing that almost 85 per cent of the public back the campaign.
Hamas has an estimated 15,000 fighters who have used the 18 months that they have controlled the Gaza Strip to hone their skills in anticipation of open combat with Israel.