The military estimates the Islamic militant group has some 10,000 rockets and mortars in its arsenal after stocking up for years thanks to a steady flow of weapons though a network of tunnels from Egypt.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak said the Israeli strikes have destroyed nearly all of Hamas’ most potent weapon: Iranian-made Fajr rockets that are capable of striking Israel’s Tel Aviv heartland.
But on Thursday, three rockets struck the densely populated Tel Aviv area. There were no reports of injuries, and police were exploring the possibility that two of the rockets landed in the sea.
Hamas, for its part, says its strikes will be deadlier than the last war and reach deeper into Israel.
‘‘After four years, we became stronger, we have a strategy and we became united with all the military wings in Gaza,’’ said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, adding that the movement had ‘‘decided to elongate the distance of its rockets to Tel Aviv.’’
A strike on Tel Aviv would be the first time Gaza rocket squads have reached the city, a significant escalation.
In southern Israel, closer to Gaza, all the major cities were under fire Thursday. One of the strikes killed three Israelis in the southern city of Kiryat Malachi. By comparison, only four Israelis were killed by rocket fire during the 3-week-long 2008-2009 military campaign.
Since its offensive four years ago, Israel has deployed its ‘‘Iron Dome’’ rocket defense system, which was developed specifically to counter the short-range rocket threat from Gaza. The Israeli batteries have intercepted dozens of projectiles, but the system is far from full-proof.
‘‘There is no military and no country in the world with technology like the Iron Dome system,’’ Barak said at a battery outside the city of Beersheba. ‘‘However, it is important to emphasize that the system does not provide 100 percent protection. There is no such thing as a perfect system.’’
Uzi Dayan, a former Israeli deputy military chief, said the Israeli homefront was now better equipped to cope with that threat, and that Israeli intelligence gathering was far superior and capable of surgically knocking out Hamas assets.
‘‘Israel has been collecting intelligence for years. It has a ‘bank of targets’ it has tracked and waited until now to hit,’’ he said. ‘‘At times like these you go for maximal damage.’’
Israeli military officials say the main lesson from four years ago is not to linger too long. The longer the offensive goes on, the greater the chance of misfires and international censure.
Militarily speaking, Hamas can’t match up with Israel. But if it drags Israel into a prolonged campaign and large numbers of civilians are killed, Israel could become entangled and have to withdraw before reaching its goal.
As in 2009, Israeli elections loom. Netanyahu appears poised to be re-elected with a message stressing security. But he has been losing ground to other parties that focus more on domestic issues. A strong performance by the military could rejuvenate his campaign.
Despite the potential electoral upside for him and Barak, who heads a small centrist party, no one in Israel has accused them of playing politics — yet.
‘‘It’s politics out, war in. ... Netanyahu has changed the agenda,’’ columnist Sima Kadmon wrote in Yediot Ahronot. ‘‘There has never been an operation or a war that hasn’t started out with a consensus. But have no fear: Should a rocket strike us or kill innocents on their side, or an offensive lasts one hour longer than necessary, politics will come raging back.’’
Aron Heller has covered the region for The Associated Press since 2005.
Follow Heller on Twitter (at)aronhellerap
An AP News Analysis