Israel ramps up aerial assault on Gaza as possible ground invasion looms
- Israeli missiles hit smuggling tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip, in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on Wednesday. The Israeli army on Wednesday intensified its offensive on the Hamas-run Gaza Strip, striking Hamas sites and killing more than a dozen of people on the second day of a military operation it says is aimed at quenching rocket fire against Israel. (Photo: Associated Press)
JERUSALEM (AP) - Israel dramatically escalated its aerial assault in Gaza Thursday hitting hundreds of Hamas targets, as Palestinians reported 16 people killed in strikes that hit a home and a beachside cafe and Israel's missile defense system once again intercepted rockets fired by militants at the country's heartland.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Israel struck more than 320 Hamas targets overnight, focusing on underground tunnel networks and rocket launching sites. That brought the total number of targets hit to 750 in three days of the massive offensive that has killed at least 80 Palestinians.
Lerner said Israel has already mobilized 20,000 reservists for a possible ground operation into Gaza, but for the time being Israel remained focused on maximizing its air campaign. A ground invasion could lead to heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side while putting Israeli ground forces in danger.
Neither side is showing any sign of halting their heaviest fighting since an eight-day battle in late 2012. Israel says that Hamas must cease rocket fire from Gaza for Israel to consider a truce. Militants have fired hundreds of rockets, striking across the length of Israel and disrupting life across the country. No one has been seriously harmed as the "Iron Dome" defense system has intercepted at least 70 of the projectiles destined for major population centers.
"The ground option needs to be the last option and only if it is absolutely necessary. It is a carefully designed plan of action," Lerner said.
The Israeli security Cabinet was meeting to discuss its next moves.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the operation was going according to plan, with Israel targeting various Hamas interests.
"The military's successes so far have been very significant," he said. "We will continue until they understand that this escalation is not beneficial to them and that we will not tolerate rocket fire toward our towns and citizens."
Palestinian medical officials said a strike early Thursday struck a home in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, killing eight members of the Al Haj family. Tractors cleared away large piles of debris from the demolished building as one man laid atop a mattress and blankets that remained.
Earlier, at least eight others were killed when a strike hit a Gaza beach cafe where they were watching a World Cup semifinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands, said Mahmoud Sawali, who said he lost at least two of his brothers in the attack.
"We only ask of help from God. Here I have two brothers who are martyrs, and I'm looking for the third," he said.
The Israeli military said it was investigating both incidents. It also said it struck a car in Gaza carrying three Islamic Jihad militants involved in firing rockets. The militant group confirmed that its men were killed in the strike. Hamas officials said that the Palestinian side of its border crossing with Israel had also been destroyed in Israeli airstrikes.
The Health Ministry in Gaza has reported 81 deaths thus far, saying about half were women and children though the exact breakdown remains unclear.
Israel accuses militants of deliberately endangering civilians by using homes and other civilian buildings for cover. The military has also directly targeted the offices and homes of known militants that it says are used as command centers. The military typically contacts the families first to ask civilians to evacuate before striking its targets.
Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Hamas is firing rockets from "within houses and streets and neighborhoods which are populated with civilians ... exposing these civilians to retaliation and to backfire."
After an overnight lull, militants resumed their barrage toward central and southern Israel. Remnants of a long-range rocket fired from Gaza landed in a gas station in south Tel Aviv after being shot down by Israel's "Iron Dome" defense system.
The longer range of the rockets fired from Gaza has disrupted life across southern and central Israel, where people have been forced to remain close to home, and kindergartens and summer camps have closed. Israeli television has been a constant news loop with updates from both sides of the border and even radio music stations were interrupting songs with news of every siren informing of incoming rockets.
"We heard the siren and we immediately entered the home shelter," said Avraham Nachum, from the southern Israeli town of Netivot. "One of the boys was in the shower. He didn't manage to step outside of the shower on time."
Besides firing toward Israel's two largest cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas also launched a rocket that reached the town of Zichron Yaakov, more than 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of Gaza.
Initially, Israel said that "quiet would be met with quiet" but as the rocket fire has reached deeper into Israel officials have taken a tougher stand saying the rocket threat against Israel must be lifted.
"The state of Israel is ready for every scenario in order to protect its citizens," said President Shimon Peres. "The Hamas is killing the citizens of Gaza by placing them where rockets are being fired."