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JERUSALEM (16 January) - As Israel's ground offensive in Gaza entered its most audacious phase last night, the country's leaders continued to stand firm, defending their actions and declaring that victory was approaching in the war against the United Nations.

(Note: if any of the following terms - "anti-Semite", "anti-Zionist", "anti-Israel" - enters your head during this article, make sure you read to the end.)

Last night, Israel successfully incinerated the main headquarters of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) in Gaza, destroying aid supplies and leaving several employees injured. Military officials were said to be "delighted" with the outcome of the operation.

According to local media reports, Israeli forces failed in their bid to apprehend the UNRWA's leader, Christopher Gunness. Sources said that senior figures within the government were determined to leave no stone unturned to make sure that Mr Gunness is brought to justice for trying to protect civilians.

The assault on the agency headquarters follows weeks of intense fighting in which Israel have bombed a UN school and boldly ignored daily ceasefires in order to fire repeatedly on UN ambulance and supply drivers.

Commenting on the operation against the UNRWA, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's spokesman Mark Regev told reporters that "we [do not] apologise" for the destruction caused. He said that great progress was being made in the IDF's attempts to "obliterate" the United Nations presence in Gaza.

"Our position from the beginning has been the same - the safety of innocent Israeli civilians is our number one priority," Mr Regev said. "Consequently, we will not rest until we have beaten the United Nations into submission. As long as they continue to conduct aid operations in Gaza, we will hunt them down. As long as they continue to give medical treatment to the Gazans, we will hunt them down."

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was similarly forthright, saying that the success of the latest round of attacks showed that Israel was close to achieving its objectives. She rejected the idea that repeatedly firing at UN vehicles and buildings was harming the peace process, condemning the UN's "impunity" and arguing that "they are going to abuse any kind of cease fire in order to put... themselves in a better position to help civilians".

"Our goal in this conflict was to change the equation in the region, and over the past weeks we have been able to do that. The days of the United Nations assisting civilians and Israel showing restraint are over."

Edited extract from my remarks on the comments page:

Is it "extremist" to hope that United Nations buildings and vehicles will escape being fired upon, when the IDF is in possession of full co-ordinates of all UN locations? As it happens, I fully support Israel's right to defend itself to a proportional extent, and I wholly condemn the violent tactics that Hamas has employed.

I've always been prepared to defend Israel's interests in the world. It's quite common for some of the people I know to make passing remarks about Israel's "disgraceful actions" or whatever, as though no evidence is ever required. Whenever that happens, I will pull them up and ask them to qualify their statement. [But] it seems that your definition of "turning against Israel" is different from mine. In your book, any criticism of Israel's actions - including, it seems, the incompetent bombing of UN targets - is "turning against Israel". That is unfortunate.

Originally posted to Cyril Washbrook on Thu Jan 15, 2009 at 09:32 PM PST.

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