MIDDLE EAST

Israel ramps up assault on Gaza with hundreds of air strikes

Palestinians say 16 more killed in hundreds of air strikes targeting Hamas militants, who keep up a mostly ineffective rocket barrage

PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 12:04am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 July, 2014, 9:11am
AP

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Israel dramatically escalated its aerial assault on Gaza yesterday, while the Palestinian militants retaliated by targeting the country's two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

In Gaza, the Health Ministry reported 22 deaths yesterday in strikes that hit a home and a beachside cafe full of World Cup watchers, taking the toll in this week's offensive to 85.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said Israel struck more than 320 Hamas targets overnight, focusing on underground tunnel networks and rocket-launching sites.

That brought the number of targets hit to 750 in three days of the massive offensive.

Lerner said Israel had already mobilised 20,000 reservists for a possible ground operation into the Gaza Strip, but for the time being remained focused on maximising its air campaign.

"The ground option needs to be the last option and only if it is absolutely necessary. It is a carefully designed plan of action," he said.

Neither side is showing any sign of halting their heaviest fighting since an eight-day battle in late 2012. Israel says that Hamas must cease rocket fire from Gaza for Israel to consider a truce.

After an overnight lull, militants resumed their barrage toward central and southern Israel. Remnants of a long-range rocket fired from Gaza landed in a gas station in south Tel Aviv after being shot down by the Iron Dome.

Four rockets were fired at Jerusalem, setting off air raid sirens across the city. The military said two rockets were intercepted, while two fell in open areas. A plume of white smoke following the interceptors could be seen over central Jerusalem

Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said the operation was going according to plan, with Israel targeting various Hamas interests.

"The military's successes so far have been very significant," he said. "We will continue until they understand that this escalation is not beneficial to them and that we will not tolerate rocket fire towards our towns and citizens."

Palestinian medical officials said a strike early yesterday hit a home in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, killing eight members of the Al Haj family. Earlier, at least eight others died when a strike hit the Gaza beach café, said Mahmoud Sawali, who said two of his brothers were killed.

"We only ask of help from God. Here I have two brothers who are martyrs, and I'm looking for the third," he said.

The Israeli military said it was investigating both incidents.

It also said it struck a car in Gaza carrying three Islamic Jihad militants involved in firing rockets. The militant group confirmed that its men were killed in the strike.

Israel accuses militants of endangering civilians by using homes and other civilian buildings for cover. The military has also directly targeted the offices and homes of known militants that it says are used as command centres. The military typically contacts the families first to ask civilians to evacuate before striking its targets.

Yigal Palmor, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Hamas was firing rockets from "within houses and streets and neighbourhoods which are populated with civilians ... exposing these civilians to retaliation and to backfire".

The longer range of the rockets fired from Gaza has disrupted life across southern and central Israel, where people have been forced to remain close to home, and kindergartens and summer camps have closed.

"We heard the siren and we immediately entered the home shelter," said Avraham Nachum, from the southern Israeli town of Netivot. "One of the boys was in the shower. He didn't manage to step outside of the shower on time."

Besides firing towards Israel's two largest cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas also launched a rocket that reached the town of Zichron Yaakov, more than 100 kilometres north of Gaza.

Initially, Israel said "quiet would be met with quiet", but as the rocket fire has reached deeper, officials have taken a tougher stand.