KHAN YOUNIS, Gaza Strip — About a dozen local Palestinians gathered Wednesday evening at the Fun Time Beach cafe, a beachside eatery of plastic chairs, umbrellas, walls of cloth and palm leaves, a container for a kitchen and a small bathroom, to watch the World Cup match between Argentina and the Netherlands.
What they were not watching for was an Israeli missile, apparently targeting what Israel’s military later described as a single terrorist. The blast destroyed the cafe and killed at least eight people.
On Thursday, bulldozers, excavators and rescue officers were digging through the remnants of the cafe on the golden sand of this city in the southern Gaza Strip. They were looking for the body of Salim Sawalli, a possible ninth victim. Two of Sawalli’s brothers were among the dead.
Kamel Sawalli, the oldest of the four brothers, was sitting up beside one of the bulldozer drivers, refusing calls from relatives to attend the funerals. The sand was wet from seeping seawater, making their work to find Salim harder.
“I will not go before I find Salim,’’ the brother shouted over the roar of the bulldozer. “The three should be buried together.’’
The cafe was one of more than 750 locations that the Israeli military struck in the first 48 hours of its aerial blitz in Gaza that began in the early hours of Tuesday morning, with the stated goal of halting the rocket attacks from Gaza against Israeli towns and cities.
Among the targets listed by the military are concealed rocket launchers, weapons stores, training sites, tunnels and other facilities used by the militant groups. The military has also bombed scores of homes it says are used as control and command centers by field operatives of Hamas, the Islamic group that dominates Gaza, and other militant organizations. In those cases the occupants are told to vacate the premises, usually by a telephone call followed by a small missile without an explosive warhead hitting the roof as a warning of a pending attack, though the system is not foolproof.
The death toll in Gaza had risen to at least 78 by Thursday, the majority of them noncombatants, according to Health Ministry officials in the Palestinian coastal enclave.
When the military aims to kill a specific militant in a precision attack, no heads-up is given. “We don’t warn terrorists,’’ said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military. Still, the military says it makes efforts to avoid collateral damage.
The details of what happened at the Fun Time Beach cafe remain hazy. Lerner said the missile had been meant to be a “precision strike,’’ adding, “We were targeting a terrorist.’’
But he had no immediate information on the identity of the person in Israel’s sights or why the military struck when the cafe was abuzz with more than a dozen people.
Residents of Khan Younis said that Wednesday night was particularly unnerving because of the explosions.
“The bombing did not stop; the children could not sleep. It was really frightening,’’ said Hassan Bashiti, 52, who stood with a group of men wearing white gowns in the main street of the town where all the stores were closed, waiting for the funerals.
At the Nasser Clinical Center, the main hospital in the city, the wounded were still arriving at noon on Thursday. The wailing sirens of incoming ambulances mixed with the patriotic ballads that blared from the loudspeakers of cars on their way out, leading funeral processions.
Tamer al-Astal, 27, was lying in a hospital bed being treated for shrapnel wounds in his face and leg from the blast on the beach. Al-Astal, a construction worker, said he lived near the cafe and went there every night.
“We were watching news on the television and waiting for the match to begin,’’ he recalled. “I heard a terrible boom and felt myself suffocating. I woke up to find myself here in the hospital.’’
Three of al-Astal’s cousins were among the dead.
Samah Sawalli, 29, said her brothers had been spending their nights at the cafe and coming home at dawn when the daily fast starts in the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“They would break their fast there,’’ she said, wearing a black veil and surrounded by her mother, who was unable to speak, and other women at the family’s home in Khan Younis. Weeping, she recalled their assuring her that Fun Time Beach “was a safe place.’’
With the casualties of Israel’s aerial campaign in Gaza mounting, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing, the main gateway for Gaza’s population of 1.7 million, to allow the evacuation of wounded to hospitals in Egypt and the passage of Palestinians who hold Egyptian citizenship. The crossing, at the southern end of the Gaza Strip, had been closed for about a month.
Hundreds of people gathered outside the gate, which Hamas officers shut in a desperate attempt to control the crowds.
Nariman Shurab made it into the departure hall with her three children, who were barefoot. Her husband was unable to travel with them, she said, crying, because he does not hold an Egyptian passport, only a Palestinian one.
She said that an airstrike near her house in Khan Younis had blown out the windows and doors, so she had moved to her mother-in-law’s house, hoping it would be safer.
But then, she said, they also received a warning to vacate their house, referring to a prerecorded message sent to thousands of mobile phones in Gaza on Thursday.
“I could not wait,’’ she said, as she waited for her passport to be stamped. “I ran out without even getting my children’s shoes and sped to the crossing.’’