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A Palestinian firefighter prepares to extinguish a fire after an Israeli air strike on the building of the Hamas ministry of interior in Gaza City, Nov. 16, 2012.

Mohammed Salem/Reuters

Israelis reeled Thursday under a barrage of almost 300 missiles fired from Gaza as the Jewish state endured a day more deadly and destructive than any it encountered in Israel's first war against Hamas in 2008-09.

Three people were killed in Kiryat Malachi, a community 25 kilometres north of Gaza, when their fifth-floor apartment was hit by a missile. Israelis throughout the south of the country scrambled to bomb shelters throughout the day and schools were closed.

But the event that shocked Israelis most occurred about 6:30 p.m. Thursday when two missiles struck Tel Aviv, one landing just offshore, the other in an open area at the south end of the city. It was the first time in 20 years that enemy missiles had been fired on the Israeli metropolis and the sound of air-raid sirens sent unsuspecting Tel Avivians running in circles and throwing themselves on the ground.

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The sense of panic was such that the city's massive cellphone service crashed from overuse as people telephoned loved ones to inquire about their safety.

The fighting between Israel and Islamist militants in Gaza, the heaviest in four years, came after Israel launched a ferocious air assault Wednesday to stop repeated rocket fire from Gaza. The powerful Hamas military chief, Ahmed Jaabari, was killed in that strike.

For all the firepower being unleashed on Gaza, there was a feeling among Israelis that they were the ones being harder hit in the first full day of fighting between the two sides, in marked contrast to the 2008-09 war. The difference at this early stage of the current conflict is that Israel appears to be fighting in a much more constrained way, one that could bring far less international condemnation than it encountered in 2008.

Throughout the day, Israelis watched their televisions and sat by their radios for every last word of round-the-clock coverage of the conflict. Every few minutes, stations played public-service announcements advising people how to take cover when a siren sounds and how much time people have before the rocket hits – in Kiryat Malachi they have about 30 seconds.

"We're trying to keep life as normal as possible," said Dov Tzur, mayor of Rishon Letzion, whose community just outside Tel Aviv was also hit by missiles Thursday. "But some people are panicking."

The government sensed this, too, and announced it would be calling up some 30,000 reservists to active duty.

In Gaza, however, there was little panic as people seemed to take the attacks in stride – they had seen it all before. Even the funeral of Mr. Jaabari, the Hamas military commander assassinated Wednesday by Israel, was a relatively calm event as such things go.

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Mohamed Abu Salim, a Gaza City high-school teacher, remarked on how much of a "ghost town" Gaza became Thursday after dark, but expressed surprise at just how quiet the city had been during the day.

Some 18 Palestinians were killed in the 11/2 days after Mr. Jaabari's assassination, but considering the hundreds of attacks carried out by Israeli forces on Gaza, and their much greater fire power, that's a surprisingly low number. Contrast it with the weekend in late December, 2008, when 250 to 300 Gazans were killed in the first two days of a shock-and-awe bombardment meant to intimidate the Hamas leadership that had also been firing rockets into Israel.

Israeli attacks have focused on military sites with relatively little collateral damage, as evidenced by the casualty figures – the country even is allowing journalists in Israel to travel into Gaza to document the effects of the missile attacks.

A confidant Israeli leadership announced Wednesday that its forces had removed most, if not all, of Hamas's long-range missile-launchers. But judging by the number of missiles that still were fired from Gaza on Thursday – including several that eluded Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system and reached the centre of the country – those earlier statements were premature.

On Thursday night, the Israel Defence Forces again struck at military sites, some 70 of them, in a further effort to degrade Hamas's capability to launch long- and medium-range missiles.

Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniya boasted late Thursday that Gazans could easily withstand whatever punishing raids Israel meted out. Shortly after those remarks, however, an Israel missile, fired from a naval ship offshore, struck and set on fire a jeep parked outside the Haniya household in Gaza City. The generator that provided electricity to the home also was destroyed.

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On Israeli television, several analysts warned that Israel must hit harder if it is to achieve its objective of striking fear into Hamas.

Indeed, Benjamin Netanyahu's government is expected to expand IDF operations in the Gaza Strip and is not interested in a ceasefire for now. This was the word after a meeting late Thursday among Mr. Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

"We'll continue the pressure and the attacks on Gaza until Hamas begs for a ceasefire," said one official, according to Israeli news reports. "Perhaps a ground operation will be necessary," said another official. "The operation will not end until all the goals are achieved and Israel restores its deterrence against Hamas."

"We're in no hurry to receive messages about a ceasefire from Egypt or other states," he said.

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