GAZA — Israel on Friday continued its punishing offensive here while feverish diplomatic talks were under way in Cairo, Washington and Jerusalem to find a way to end the bloodshed that has taken more than 1,100 Palestinian lives and wounded thousands more people in the last three weeks.
Inside Gaza, the sound of airstrikes thundered throughout the afternoon and into the evening as a small group of Western reporters, including me, was permitted to pass through the Egyptian border into Gaza.
Here, the hospitals were teeming with the wounded as exhausted medics struggled to treat patients with limited medical supplies.
The night air was pierced by the shrill, cracking sound of another airstrike.
"This war must stop immediately," said Mohammad Bashir Abad, 20, a student. "It is very bad for the Palestinian people."
"They bomb all around," he said, gesturing around him, trying to give some sense of scope to the offensive. He was very measured, not yelling, but intensely passionate.
"I have three brothers," Abad said, seemingly unfazed by the bombings but worried about his siblings. They are "very afraid by all this."
In Jerusalem, Reuters reported that Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told reporters that he would convene his security cabinet on Saturday night to decide whether to call a unilateral cease-fire.
Although Olmert said earlier in the day that the offensive could be “in its final act,” there was no apparent let up in the pace or intensity of the offensive, according to those who have lived under the brutal military campaign for the last three weeks.
In Gaza, a representative of Hamas coordinated a tour showing reporters whole neighborhoods reduced to rubble.
"Everything is destroyed. Infrastructure, schools, homes, streets. Everything is destroyed here,” said Ghazi Hamdan, a spokesman for Hamas, the militant Islamic group popularly elected last year as the governing party.
Last year, Hamas broke a cease-fire agreement and began firing rockets inside southern Israel. The massive military offensive that Israel has unleashed is, according to Israeli officials, retaliation for the Hamas rocket attacks that have left parts of southern Israeli living in fear.
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak earlier in the military campaign vowed “a war to the bitter end.”
But many longtime observers of the Middle East have questioned the military strategy and long-term objectives of this offensive.
The level of civilian casualties on the Palestinian side has prompted large protests across much of the Muslim world and Europe. The use of phosphorous bombs and what appears to be indiscriminate bombing has been strongly condemned by the United Nations and human rights organizations, including B’tselem, Israel’s leading human rights organization. Still, the war has almost universal popular support among Israelis on the left and right side of the country’s political spectrum.
As evening darkness settled over Gaza, cell phone lights began to punctuate the night as people used the only bit of light they had to try to find their way.
The ever-present thunder of the Israeli jets seemed louder in the dark.
We bunkered down in a private house in Rafah, a corner of Gaza that is just a few hundred yards from the Egyptian border. Here, a few dull thuds, bombs, reverberated through the house, though people didn't seem to notice.
They’d grown used to the sound, they said.
Driving around Gaza after dark is an eerie thing.
In Khan Yunis, people slipped in and out of buildings discreetly, unseen in the shadows. Electricity appeared to be out in about 80 percent of buildings. Only those with generators were still lit.
In Rafah, the towering remains of a roadside mosque glided by our taxi window, concrete chunks and twisted cables pushed off to the edge of the road. Four boys sat on a curb, huddling around a fire in the chilly winter evening.
This is hilly country, and our old, beaten-up taxis struggled up every hill, highlighting the decrepit state of things.
"This is a big step for us," said the Hamas spokesman who escorted us on the tour of Gaza.
"They want to show the world what is going on in Gaza."