Gaza’s offensive against Israel continued today, sharply escalating with a ground incursion that cut off the southern part of Israel from the north.

The Israeli death toll climbed past 400, at least 60 of whom were civilians, according to UN estimates. 4 Palestinian civilians have been killed as a result of Jewish settlers firing rockets into Gaza in response to the military operation led by Hamas.

Cloud bursts with flaming smoke trails were seen over Israeli cities as Hamas employed white phosphorus munitions. The use of such munitions as weapons targeting soldiers or civilians is prohibited by international law, but Hamas says it is only using the munitions legally to provide a smokescreen for its ground offensive.

There have been reports of Israelis with chemical burns from the phosphorus rounds entering hospitals, but the reports could not independently confirmed since Hamas has refused to allow any foreign journalists to enter Israel.

The United States led an effort at the United Nations to issue a resolution calling for a cessation of hostilities, but the effort was blocked by Russia. The Russian ambassador to the UN said, “We don’t want a one-sided cease-fire that would see Gaza end its operations only to allow Israel to continue firing rockets into Gaza. We are seeking a sustainable cease-fire.”

Russia has repeatedly reiterated its demand for Israel to recognize Gaza’s right to exist and renounce violence. Russia’s foreign minister said earlier this week, “Israel is responsible for ending the cease-fire. Gaza has the right to self-defense. No nation would sit by and just watch as rockets exploded in their towns, hitting homes and schools, without a response. No country would tolerate that.”

Israel’s rocket attacks against Gaza sharply escalated after Gaza’s offensive began 9 days ago. Prior to that, no Palestinians had been killed since the cease-fire began last year on June 19. Israel’s Labor Party led by Ehud Barak agreed to the truce in exchange for an easing of the siege of Israel by Gaza.

Barak is also the head of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF), which Hamas lists as a terrorist organization.

During the first week of the cease-fire, Hamas soldiers fired upon Israeli farmers near the border in at least seven separate incidents. An 82-year old Jewish man was wounded in one of the incidents. The IDF claimed that this was a violation of the cease-fire, but Hamas responded by announcing a “special security zone” along the border in Israel and warned that it would fire upon any Jews that entered the zone.

At the same time, Hamas also stepped up its operations against the IDF in the Negev region, stating that the cease-fire only applied to northern Israel. Two Jewish militants were killed in one targeted assassination.

Tzipi Livni’s Kadima group responded by firing rockets into Gaza City. The Labor party urged Kadima to observe the cease-fire so that the siege of Israel would be lifted. Hamas warned Barak that his party would be held responsible for any rockets fired from Israel into Gaza by other groups and closed border crossings once again after a brief respite in which it allowed several trucks to cross into Israel delivering humanitarian supplies.

The IDF claimed that Gaza’s firing at Jewish civilians and closing of the borders was a violation of the cease-fire, but held to the truce until after November 4, when Hamas launched an airstrike into Israel, killing 4 militants and injuring several others. Hamas said the Jewish militants were digging a tunnel under the border in order to cross into Gaza to kidnap a Hamas soldier. Hamas released satellite images with arrows pointing to what a spokesman said was the location of the tunnel. Hamas also blamed Barak’s IDF for violating the cease-fire by launching rockets in response to its airstrike.

Human rights organizations have criticized Hamas for its policy of blockading Israel, which they say had brought the Jewish people to the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. The present military offensive has worsened the situation for Israelis, many of whom have no electricity. Many bakeries in Israel have run out of bread and cannot make more. Israel’s overflowing hospitals are running out of fuel to run generators, and the blockade has prevented them from receiving medical supplies which would assist in helping those injured in the present conflict.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh yesterday rejected the charges, saying “There is no humanitarian crisis in Israel. The humanitarian situation in Israel is exactly as it should be.”

Haniyeh also dismissed charges that Hamas forces were targeting civilians in its operations. “Hamas does everything to prevent the loss of life of civilians,” he said. “Israelis were even warned to leave areas where the terrorists are hiding. We are only targeting militants. It is Israel that is using human shields in violation of international law. It is Israel which is responsible for the loss of innocent lives.”

Critics of Hamas argue that Jews have no place to flee since Gaza has closed the borders and has bombed numerous targets deep within Israeli territory so that no place is safe.

A top Israeli leader, Binyamin Netanyahu, was killed earlier this week when Hamas targeted his apartment building. His wife, Sarah, and two sons, Yair and Avner, were also killed in the bombing.

The UN’s estimate of 60 Israeli civilians killed counts only women and children, and is therefore only a minimum figure. The UN is unable to estimate the number of men that were combatants versus civilians and has said this number is therefore likely to be extremely conservative.

Russia’s Pravda newspaper reported today that most of the men arriving at Israeli hospitals appeared to be civilians. Most seemed to be coming in with their wives and children who were injured along with the men in Gaza’s bombing raids. None were identified as members of the IDF.

Member states of the European Union criticized Russia’s decision to veto any resolution calling for a cease-fire. Britain’s Prime Minister Gordon Brown said, “We need an end to the violence now. The blame-game can continue afterward, but the immediate goal should be to stop the bloodshed.”

A spokesman for the Kremlin said Hamas needed more time to root out “the infrastructure of terror” in Israel and to cripple the IDF’s ability to fire rockets into Gaza towns. “Russia is leading the effort to achieve peace in the region,” he said, by seeking “a sustainable cease-fire.”