At least 44 dead as Israel vows to ‘intensify’ Gaza offensive

US calls for de-escalation but Netanyahu says Hamas will pay heavy price for firing at Israelis

The Israeli army today released cockpit footage of an aircraft targeting what it says was a weapon storage facility in a civilian area in Gaza. At least 18 civilians, including 5 children, are among Palestinian dead.

 

Israeli air strikes shook Gaza every few minutes today, and militants kept up rocket fire at Israel’s heartland in intensifying warfare that Palestinian officials said has killed at least 44 people in the Hamas-dominated enclave.

Missiles from Israel’s Iron Dome defence system shot into the sky to intercept rockets launched, for the second straight day, at Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial capital.

The United States this evening urged Israel and the Palestinians to de-escalate tensions and expressed concern for the safety of civilians on both sides. A US state department spokeswoman said secretary of state John Kerry had spoken earlier in the day with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and planned to speak with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli leaders, who seem to have wide popular support at home for the Gaza operation, have warned of a lengthy campaign and possible ground invasion of the heavily populated Palestinian territory.

“We have decided to step up even more the attacks on Hamas and terrorist organisations in Gaza,” Mr Netanyahu said in a statement. “The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are prepared for every option. Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing at Israeli citizens.”

With cries of ‘Allahu akbar’ (God is great), Palestinians in Gaza cheered as rockets streaked overhead toward Israel, in attacks that could provide a popularity boost for Islamist Hamas, whose rift with neighbouring Egypt’s military-backed government has deepened economic hardship.

Other communities near Tel Aviv in central Israel and in the south, closer to Gaza, were also targeted. In the longest-range attack since yesterday, when Israel stepped up its offensive, a rocket hit near Zichron Yaakov, a town 115 km north of Gaza.

No Israeli fatalities or serious injuries were reported and Israeli news reports hailed as heroes the military crews of the Iron Dome batteries, which are made in Israel and partly funded by the United States. The military said 48 rockets struck Israel today, and Iron Dome intercepted 14 others.

With frequent explosions from air strikes echoing through Gaza City, its main shopping street was largely deserted. Local residents reported hundreds of attacks today.

The Israeli military said it had bombarded 550 Hamas sites, including 60 rocket launchers and 11 homes of senior Hamas members. It described those dwellings as command centres.

Palestinian officials said at least 25 houses were either destroyed or damaged and not all belonged to militants.

Militants in the Gaza Strip launched three rockets towards the southern Israeli town of Dimona and its nuclear reactor today, causing no injury or damage.

The build-up to the most serious hostilities between Israel and Gaza militants since an eight-day war in 2012 began three weeks ago with rocket attacks following the abduction and killing of three Jewish seminary students in the occupied West Bank.

At least 38 civilians, including 10 children, were among the 44 Palestinian dead in two days of fighting, and some 300 people have been wounded, hospital officials said.

Cairo brokered a truce in the conflict two years ago, but the current government’s hostility toward Hamas, which it accuses of aiding militants in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, could make a mediation role more difficult. Hamas denies the allegations.

Palestinian rocket barrages have sent Israelis racing for bomb shelters, with radio stations constantly interrupting regular broadcasts to announce where sirens have sounded. But the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange seemed untroubled, ending the day with shares slightly higher.

Mr Netanyahu’s security cabinet has already approved the potential mobilisation of up to 40,000 reserve troops. His office said he had discussed the situation with United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr Kerry and that he would speak to other world leaders later.

In an air strike on a home in northern Gaza, a top leader of the Islamic Jihad group and five of his family members were killed, the Palestinian interior ministry said. An 80-year-old Palestinian woman was killed in an Israeli attack on another target in central Gaza, local officials said.

A 60-year-old man and his son were also killed when two missiles hit their house in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, medical officials said.

Mr Abbas, who is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and entered a power-sharing arrangement with Hamas in April after years of feuding, said he had spoken to Egypt about the Gaza crisis.

“This war is not against Hamas or any faction but is against the Palestinian people,” Mr Abbas said in a speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Reuters