GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli aircraft, tanks and naval gunboats pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Thursday and rocket salvoes thudded into southern Israel, as terrified residents on both sides of the frontier holed up at home in anticipation of heavy fighting on the second day of Israel’s offensive against Islamic militants.
The operation, launched in response to days of rocket fire from the Palestinian territory, kicked off with the assassination of Hamas’ top military commander and deepened the instability gripping the Mideast. Israel’s already strained relations with Egypt’s new Islamist government frayed even further as Egypt recalled its ambassador Wednesday in response to the Israeli military operation.
Just days earlier, Israel was drawn into Syria’s civil war for the first time, firing missiles into its northern neighbor for the first time in four decades after stray mortar fire landed in Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.
Waves of airstrikes on more than 100 militant targets quickly followed the assassination of Hamas mastermind Ahmed Jabari. The air attacks continued steadily into the early hours Thursday, targeting the armed group’s training facilities and rocket launchers in Israel’s most intense attack on the territory since its full-scale war there four years ago.
Ten Palestinians, including two young children and seven militants, were killed on the operation’s first day, and more than 93 were wounded. Early on Thursday, Israel targeted a motorcycle carrying a rocket squad, killing one militant and wounding two, a Palestinian health official said. The Israeli military had no immediate confirmation of this report.
Tank shells and naval gunfire backed up the air onslaught. Few in the territory’s largest urban area, Gaza City, heeded the call for dawn prayers, and the only vehicles plying the streets were ambulances and media cars.
Schools have been ordered closed until the operation ends, and most of the territory’s 1.6 million people were expected to hunker down close to home, venturing out only to buy food, fuel and other basic supplies. Hamas announced a state of emergency in Gaza, evacuating all its security buildings and deploying its troops away from their locations.
Dozens of rockets bombarded southern Israel after the operation began, the militants undeterred by the relentless air attacks. No serious casualties were reported as Israel declared a state of emergency in its south and instructed people to remain close to fortified areas.
School was canceled within a 25-mile (40-kilometer) radius of Gaza. People living in areas hugging the frontier were ordered to stay home from work, save for essential services, and shopping centers were shut down. Israeli police stepped up patrols around the country, fearing Hamas could retaliate with bombing attacks far from the reaches of Gaza.
Israel said the airstrikes Wednesday were the beginning of a broader operation against the Islamic militants. They also said a ground operation was a strong possibility in the coming days if Hamas didn’t take steps to rein in the rocket fire.
The Israeli military says it has destroyed dozens of the militants’ most potent rockets — the Iranian-made Fajr, which is capable of striking Israel’s Tel Aviv heartland — as well as shorter-range rockets.
In all, the military estimates Hamas had 10,000 rockets and mortars in its arsenal before the military operation began.
In a nationwide address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel could no longer stand repeated attacks on its southern towns. Days of rocket fire have heavily disrupted life for some 1 million people in the region, canceling school and forcing residents to remain indoors.
‘‘If there is a need, the military is prepared to expand the operation. We will continue to do everything to protect our citizens,’’ Netanyahu declared.
In a sign the operation might broaden, the military was cleared to call up special reserve units.
Israel and Hamas have largely observed an informal truce for the past four years.
But in recent weeks, the calm has unraveled in a bout of rocket attacks out of Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. From Israel’s perspective, Hamas escalated tit-for-tat fighting in recent days with a pair of attacks: an explosion in a tunnel along the Israeli border and a missile attack on an Israeli military jeep that seriously wounded four soldiers.
Israeli defense officials warned earlier this week that they were considering resuming their controversial practice of assassinating senior militants, and the deadly attack Wednesday on Jabari proved they were serious. Israel has refrained from such attacks, which have drawn international condemnations, since its January 2009 offensive in Gaza.Continued...