The Gaza Strip is cut in two in effect, as Israeli ground troops and heavy armour have moved deeper into the territory. (photo, from lemonde.fr)
Naval, air and land bombardment supports the troops, who have taken up positions on either side of Gaza City and along a major east-west road.
Since the beginning of the ground operation, 70 people have been killed, said the Palestinian health ministry. One Israeli soldier has been killed.
US vice-president Dick Cheney defended the Israeli ground assault earlier.
Air attacks were not enough to destroy rocket sites, he said, adding that Israel had not sought US approval for ground operations.
Calls for a ceasefire have been rejected by Shimon Peres, Israeli president, though he insisted his country did not intend to re-occupy Gaza or crush Hamas.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, said that he was doing all he could to stop Israel’s “vicious aggression”.
A European Union mission has flown to the region, and Javier Solana, the bloc’s foreign policy chief, said the crisis represented a failure of diplomacy.
On Sunday, at least 32 missiles were fired into southern Israel from Gaza. In the Eshkol region two people were lightly wounded, while in Sderot a woman was slightly injured.
When night fell, much of Gaza was plunged into darkness by blackouts. Yet, the flashes of explosions could be seen from the northern border, and the regular sounds of gun and artillery fire heard.
The fighting appeared to move away from the northern end of the territory during the day. They went towards more populous areas in the west, say correspondents.
Later, Israeli military sources and witnesses said Israeli tanks and heavy armour had taken up positions on either side of Gaza City. As a result, Gaza is cut in two parts, from the Karni crossing to the Mediterranean Sea.
The town of Beit Hanoun was also reportedly surrounded.
Major fightings are reported in five areas by Hamas officials and witnesses : east of the Jabaliya refugee camp; in the Zeitoun area; near the former Jewish settlement of Netzarim; in the centre of Gaza; and on the outskirts of Khan Younis.(map, from bbc.co.uk)
Hamas fighters were in some cases engaged in “face-to-face battles” with Israeli soldiers, said the movement.
Yet earlier, the Israeli military said the militants were not engaging its troops in close combat but using mortars and improvised bombs.
Verify the figures
Five hundred and nine Palestinians, mostly civilians, have been killed in the past eight days, when the Israelis began their assault on Gaza, said the Palestinian health ministry.
It says that 21 of the 70 people killed since the beginning of the ground offensive were children. Some 2 500 people have reportedly also been wounded.
But the figures could not be independently verified. Despite a ruling by its supreme court to admit a limited number of reporters, Israel refuses to let international journalists into Gaza.
Hamas officials say that 10 of its fighters have so far been killed.
The Israeli military says one of its soldiers has been killed and 34 wounded in the ground offensive, three of them seriously. It believes about 80% of the Palestinians killed were Hamas members.
‘Trickle of aid’
According to the BBC’s Rushdi Abu Alouf in Gaza City, the fighting and Israeli positions have stopped desperately needed medical supplies getting through to hospitals that are struggling to cope with the casualties.
Oxfam, the aid agency, said a paramedic working for a partner organisation had been killed and two others injured by an Israeli shell.
Apart from the emergency medical aid, Oxfam said it had been forced to suspend its work, because the “trickle of humanitarian aid that Israel has sometimes allowed in” had dried up since the start of the ground offensive.
However, the Israeli government says 400 truckloads of humanitarian aid has been allowed into Gaza since the operation began.
Deliveries have been insufficient according to many agencies, who say that it is difficult to get supplies to where they are most needed.
While Israeli troops try to destroy tunnels under the border with Egypt, the main aid crossing point at Rafah has also been closed.