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Israeli rockets pound Gaza, military preps for ground invasion

View of central Israel seen from Tel Aviv as an Iron Dome air defense system fires to intercept a rocket from the Gaza Strip, Israel, Thursday, July 10, 2014. Israel dramatically escalated its aerial assault in Gaza Thursday hitting hundreds of Hamas targets, as Palestinians reported more than a dozen of 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.

Dan Balilty/AP

The rocket war between Israel and Hamas, in its fourth day Friday, is approaching the point of no return. With neither side backing down, the prospect of an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza, as occurred in the 2008-09 war between the two parties, looms ever more likely.

As Israeli military forces pummelled targets in Gaza Thursday, the death toll among Palestinians climbed to at least 85. But Hamas responded with a substantial escalation of its own, testing Israelis' resolve as more rockets are reaching further into the country and stretching its vaunted Iron Dome anti-missile system to the limits.

World leaders warned of an urgent need to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war that could engulf the fragile region and President Barack Obama offered the help of the United States in negotiating a ceasefire. In a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday, Mr. Obama lent his support to Israel's efforts to defend itself against an onslaught of Hamas rocket fire, but he also called on both Israel and the Palestinians to protect civilians and restore calm.

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More than 140 rockets were fired from Gaza Thursday, the Israeli military says, including four powerful long-range missiles fired simultaneously at Jerusalem late in the afternoon, more than have ever fired on the Holy City before. Two of those missiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome system and the other two landed in open areas outside the city.

Throughout the country, people scramble for shelter as the rising pitch of sirens ring out almost every day in many urban centres.

Lots of Israelis shrug it off and say they are immune to the fear Hamas wants to instill. But most of them will still scurry for the nearest shelter whenever the sirens sound.

The big difference between this battle with Hamas and past rocket wars in 2008 and 2012 is that this conflict directly reaches far more Israelis than those earlier battles in which only the southern communities of Israel seemed vulnerable. Today, from Haifa to Beersheva, and Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the vast majority of Israel's eight million people are in range of Hamas's missiles.

Remarkably, there have been no direct Israeli deaths from the rockets so far, although medics said one woman died on Thursday, a day after falling while running for cover.

Two more large rockets were fired Thursday on Tel Aviv, which now has become a routine target.

"It reminds me more of the Gulf War, than the previous battles with Hamas," said Menashe Uval, an occupational therapist who lives in the centre of Tel Aviv. He was referring to the 1991 U.S.-led war against Iraq during which the regime of Saddam Hussein launched several Scud missiles on Tel Aviv.

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Today's rocket attacks "are very serious stuff," Mr. Uval said.

Even Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas appeared shaken by the scale of Hamas's attacks, saying on Palestine TV that the barrage of rockets was "unbelievable."

"What are you trying to achieve by sending rockets?" he demanded of Hamas. "We prefer to fight with wisdom and politics."

It was the first time Mr. Abbas has openly criticized militants for firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, and he noted that it is the people of Gaza who end up suffering most.

It is "unacceptable that the Gaza Strip should undergo this type of aggression every two years," he said. "It's not important who wins or loses," he added. "What's important is to end this bloodshed."

At the same time, Mr. Abbas appealed Thursday to the United Nations Security Council to put an end to Israel's bombardment of civilians in Gaza.

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Palestinian UN Ambassador Riyad Mansour told an emergency meeting of the Security Council: "Israel has clearly violated and abdicated its responsibility as an occupying power to ensure the safety and well-being of the civilian population under its occupation."

He said Mr. Abbas has asked Switzerland – as the depository for the Geneva Conventions – to convene a meeting of the parties to the 4th Geneva Convention on the protection of civilian persons in time of war.

Israeli UN Ambassador Ron Prosor told the Security Council Israel was taking great measures to avoid harming civilians as it carries out a military operation to remove the threat posed by Hamas to Israeli civilians.

"The Israeli Defence Forces warns Palestinians in Gaza of imminent strikes. At the same time, Hamas instructs these civilians to stand on the roof of buildings and act as human shields," Mr. Prosor said.

"They are committing a double war crime: targeting Israeli civilians while hiding behind Palestinian civilians," he said.

For his part UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said: "Gaza, and the region as a whole, cannot afford another full-blown war," adding that he had asked Egypt and Qatar to help broker a ceasefire. Egypt, however, has said it has no interest in playing such a role, at least not at the moment; it was a role played by both the previous Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and the government of Hosni Mubarak.

Israel announced Thursday it is mobilizing 20,000 soldiers for a possible ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in order to silence rocket attacks against Israeli centres.

"Where is this leading, is it leading to a ground force incursion? I can't confirm that," Israeli army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner told reporters Thursday. "I can confirm we are making all the necessary preparations to be ready for that," he added.

Earlier this week, the military was authorized to call up as many as 40,000 reserve troops.

Israelis have no real interest in invading the Gaza Strip – they were glad to pull out of it in 2005 – but if just one Hamas missile slips past the Iron Dome defences and a large number of Israelis are killed, all bets are off.

"There is no government that will be able to withstand the public pressure to enter Gaza in order to install order there," wrote Alex Fishman in the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper.

"The decision on the transition to the ground stage will be the most important decision that the government makes in this campaign," he said. "And we are very close to this point."

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