Israel on Tuesday launched its largest offensive in the Gaza Strip in nearly two years, carrying out a blistering aerial assault on scores of targets and killing 25 people in what officials called an open-ended operation aimed at ending weeks of heavy rocket fire. As Gaza militants unleashed salvos on cities including Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel mobilized forces along the border for a possible ground invasion.
The offensive set off the heaviest fighting between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas since an eight-day battle in November, 2012. The militants fired about 160 rockets at Israel, including two intercepted over Tel Aviv, while Israel said it attacked more than 150 sites across Gaza.
Palestinian medics reported at least 25 dead, including six killed in an airstrike that flattened an apartment building in southern Gaza and set off widespread panic.
In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said continued rocket attacks on Israeli communities would not be tolerated.
“Therefore, I have ordered the military to significantly broaden its operation against Hamas terrorists and against the other terrorist groups inside Gaza,” he said. “I call on you to display patience because this operation could take time.”
Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird issued a statement on Tuesday condemning what he called “brazen and indiscriminate attacks” against Israel by Hamas. “Canada believes that Israel has every right to defend itself, by itself, from such belligerent acts of terrorism,” Mr. Baird said. He did not comment on the Israeli strikes.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Palestinian delegation office in Ottawa called on Canada to urge Israel to halt its strikes in the Gaza Strip.
The fighting raged throughout the day. In its fiercest attack, an airstrike flattened the home of a Hamas militant in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis, reducing the concrete structure into a smouldering pile of rubble.
Panicked residents fled, screaming “God is great.” Some had bloody faces, and crying mothers held small children as they ran away. Screaming Palestinians took away motionless bodies. Palestinian medical officials said six people, including two children, were killed.
The normally bustling streets of Gaza City were deserted late Tuesday. Fearing an Israeli ground operation, many residents from areas near the border moved to stay with relatives living deeper inside Gaza.
In southern Israel, hundreds of thousands of citizens were ordered to stay close to home because of the rockets. Israeli streets were also quieter in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem after attempted rocket strikes set off air-raid sirens in Israel’s two largest cities. The Jerusalem municipality said it was opening special bomb shelters.
Militants twice fired rockets at Tel Aviv, Israel’s commercial capital, sending people scurrying for cover. Both projectiles were intercepted by the “Iron Dome” rocket defence system. The second interception was shown on live TV, as a winding plume of smoke followed the interceptor into the black skies, culminating with a flash.
Late Tuesday, Hamas said it fired four rockets toward Jerusalem, and two distant booms could be heard from the city’s centre. One rocket landed in the Jerusalem area, officials said, and police said there were no injuries.
The Israeli military said one rocket exploded in the northern Israeli city of Hadera, about 100 kilometres away from Gaza, in the farthest a rocket from Gaza has reached so far. It caused no injuries, the army added.
In other violence, the Israeli military said it foiled Gaza militants who tried to infiltrate a military base in southern Israel by sea. Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman, said four attackers came ashore and attacked the base with grenades and automatic rifles before they were killed. An Israeli soldier was slightly wounded.
As Israel built up forces along the border, the government authorized the army to activate up to 40,000 reservists. The army said that about 1,000 soldiers were immediately activated, in addition to an earlier group of 1,500 reservists called into action.
“If we need to go inside in a ground operation, then we will do it. … We will not stop anything until the rocket firing ends,” said Yitzhak Aharonovitch, the Minister for Internal Security and a member of Mr. Netanyahu’s inner Security Cabinet. Israel’s last ground offensive was in 2009.
Asked by Channel 2 TV if there were any efforts under way to reach a cease-fire, he said: “Not now.”
Israel and Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of the Jewish state, agreed to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that ended the last round of fighting in late 2012. Hamas, however, is far weaker now and no longer has an ally in the Egyptian government, which two years ago was run by its close ally the Muslim Brotherhood. Since the military coup last year, Egypt has closed a network of smuggling tunnels that was the group’s economic lifeline.
Tensions have been rising since Palestinian militants kidnapped three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank on June 12. Accusing Hamas of being behind the abductions, Israel launched a crackdown on the group’s members in the West Bank and arrested hundreds of people. Hamas, which controls Gaza, responded by stepping up rocket fire.
The situation deteriorated last week after the bodies of the Israeli youths were found, and a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem was abducted and burned to death in what Palestinians believe was a revenge attack. Six Jewish Israelis have been arrested in the killing.
Associated Press, with a report from Kim Mackrael and Campbell Clark in Ottawa
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