Heaviest Israel-Palestine fighting in four years
KIRYAT MALACHI, Israel — Israel and Hamas widened their deadly conflict over Gaza on Thursday, as militants fired dozens of rockets — including one that killed three civilians in an apartment block in this small southern Israeli town — and two longer-range rockets aimed at Tel Aviv, causing no harm but triggering the first air raid warning there set off by incoming fire from Gaza. The death toll in Gaza from Israeli airstrikes rose to at least 16, including four children and a pregnant teenager.
There was no sign that either side was prepared to dial back the confrontation that has threatened a new war in the Middle East, despite entreaties for restraint by world leaders including President Barack Obama and Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, who planned a visit there in coming days. If anything, the Israelis intensified their attacks on Gaza after the Tel Aviv scare and made new moves toward a possible ground invasion.
The Israeli deaths were the first since Israel’s military launched ferocious aerial assaults Wednesday to stop the chronic rocket fire from Gaza, the Palestinian coastal enclave controlled by Hamas, the militant Palestinian group.
The Israel Defense Forces said in a cryptic statement that one of the two longer-range rockets aimed at Tel Aviv landed but did not hit the ground — meaning that it must have crashed into the Mediterranean Sea — and that the other appeared to have landed far outside the city. Exact locations were not specified.
But the Tel Aviv air raid warnings — which residents of Israel’s largest metropolis had not heard except for drills or malfunctions since Saddam Hussein’s Scuds threatened them in the first Persian Gulf War, more than two decades ago — were a reminder of their vulnerability to an attack from Gaza, less than 40 miles away. They also underscored Israel’s stated reason for seeking to destroy the missile-launching sites in Gaza.
Ehud Barak, the minister of defense, said the targeting of Tel Aviv and the scope of the Palestinian rocket fire ‘‘represents an escalation, and there will be a price for that escalation that the other side will have to pay.’’
Barak also dropped a further hint that planning for a ground invasion of Gaza had begun, saying he had instructed the army to broaden its draft of reservists to ‘‘be prepared for any kind of development if and when it will be required.’’
Israeli officials said 30,000 reservists could be called, and heavy machinery and tanks rumbled south along Israeli roads leading to Gaza on Thursday in preparation for a possible invasion.
The Israel Defense Forces said that within hours of the Tel Aviv air raid warning, they had attacked 70 underground rocket-launching sites in Gaza, and ‘‘direct hits were confirmed.’’ There were also unconfirmed reports that Israeli rockets had struck near Gaza’s Rafah crossing into Egypt, forcing the Egyptians to close it.
Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces, said its aerial assaults had hit more than 200 sites in Gaza by late Thursday, and ‘‘we'll continue tonight and tomorrow.’’ He also said militants in Gaza had fired about 300 rockets into southern Israel and at least 100 more had been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system.
The Israeli aerial assault on Gaza that began Wednesday was the most intense military operation by Israel in Gaza since an invasion four years ago.
The regional perils of the situation sharpened as President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt warned that his country stood by the Palestinians against what he termed Israeli aggression, echoing similar condemnation Wednesday.
‘'The Egyptian people, the Egyptian leadership, the Egyptian government, and all of Egypt is standing with all its resources to stop this assault, to prevent the killing and the bloodshed of Palestinians,’’ Morsi said in nationally televised remarks before a crisis meeting of senior ministers.
He also instructed his prime minister to lead a delegation to Gaza on Friday and said he had contacted Obama to discuss strategies to ‘‘stop these acts and doings and the bloodshed and aggression.’’
In language that reflected the upheaval in the political dynamics of the Middle East since the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last year, Morsi said: ‘‘Israelis must realize that we don’t accept this aggression and it could only lead to instability in the region and has a major negative impact on stability and security in the region.’’
The thrust of Morsi’s words seemed confined to diplomatic maneuvers, including calls to Ban, the U.N. secretary-general; the head of the Arab League; and Obama.Continued...