The death toll from Israel's aerial offensive in Gaza rose today, while rocket fire from the Palestinian coastal enclave reached new targets in Israel.
A spokesman for the Israeli military said that about 20,000 reservists had been called up and that preparations for a possible ground operation were being completed, but that the current focus of the ground forces was to uncover tunnels in Gaza used by militants for attacks.
As the air campaign entered its third day, the Palestinian death toll rose to at least 78, according to officials in Gaza. Airstrikes overnight on a house in Khan Younis and a cafeteria on the beach killed at least 15 Palestinians, Gazan officials said.
According to the officials, one airstrike hit a car used by a local news agency bearing media signs, killing the driver. The Israeli military said it had also hit three Islamic Jihad operatives that it said were involved in manufacturing medium-range rockets. In another strike, the military said it had hit an operative for Hamas, the Islamic militant group that dominates Gaza, saying he was involved in firing rockets against Israel.
The Palestine chapter of Defence for Children International, an independent child rights organization, said 14 children were killed in the airstrikes Tuesday and yesterday, including four toddlers. The group issued a list with the names and ages of those killed, saying its Gaza-based fieldworker had verified each of those deaths.
Israel says it is taking precautions in an effort to avoid civilian casualties. The military says it warns the occupants of houses marked for destruction that airstrikes are coming by phoning residents then firing a flare or a missile without an explosive warhead onto the roof to warn that an attack is imminent.
In one case, when seven people died and 25 were wounded in the Israeli strike on the house of the Kaware family in Khan Younis, Lt. Col Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said the warnings had been given, and the attack had commenced after the Israelis had seen people vacating the premises. In the short time between the last warning and the airstrike, people went back in, Lt Col Lerner told reporters today, adding that it was too late to cancel the missile.
"It is a tragedy indeed and not what we intended," he said. A member of the family said earlier that neighbours had come in to "form a human shield."
The Israeli military said that the targeted houses belonged to Hamas members involved in launching rockets or other military activity, and that they had been used as operation centers. Lt Col Lerner said he did not have details yet on the circumstances of the bombing of the beach cafe, called Fun Time, where customers had gathered to watch a World Cup game. He said he also did not have details on the attack on the vehicle marked with media signs.
In Gaza, the mood was somber but defiant. Abu Tamer Ajour (70) said the conflict had come at a bad time, with Hamas financially squeezed and unable to pay full salaries to its 40,000 employees, among other hardships.
"This aggression makes matters worse," he said, "but victory will be for the Gaza people and our resistance."
Riad Fawzi, 48, who is jobless, said he did not expect the clashes to last for long. "The Jews are not interested in more escalation," he said, referring to Israel. "We are used to this thing, but they cannot endure the same way we endure," he said, adding, "Allah is with us."
The current air campaign has been Israel's most intensive in Gaza. Lt Col Lerner said the Israeli military had struck at least 750 locations in the first 48 hours of the operation, compared with a total of 1,450 locations attacked during eight days of cross-border fighting in November 2012.
Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has said that "the operation will be expanded and will continue until the firing at our communities stops and quiet is restored." Militant groups in Gaza, which have fired more than 350 rockets into Israel since the operation began early Tuesday, according to the military, continued their attacks today.
UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, who briefed the Security Council on the crisis today, condemned the rocket attacks and urged Israel to show restraint. “Gaza is on a knife edge,” he told reporters.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called on Hamas to end its hail of rockets on Israel.