BEIT LAHIYA, Gaza Strip — As Israel’s air war against Hamas and Islamic Jihad fighters in Gaza entered its sixth day Saturday, a pair of bombings threw the difficulties of the campaign into painful relief: Israel bombed a mosque, which its aerial photos indicated was harboring a weapons cache, and a center for the disabled, killing two residents and wounding three, as well as a caretaker.
A separate strike on the house of a police commander killed at least 18 people, the highest toll so far this conflict, bringing the total number of dead to at least 140, Palestinian officials said.
In response, Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest city, garnering much attention despite causing no deaths or injuries, as three of them were intercepted.
There were also signs of imminent escalation as the Israeli military said it was going to send messages to northern Gaza residents to vacate their homes “for their own safety,’’ amid preparations for a possible ground invasion.
The Interior Ministry in Gaza urged Palestinians to ignore the warnings, calling them psychological warfare.
The Israeli bombing of the center for the disabled, the Mabaret Palestine Society here in northern Gaza, occurred just before dawn, when a missile crashed through the roof and exploded. Because it was the weekend, only five of the 19 severely disabled residents were at the center, while the rest were with their families, said Jamila Elaiwa, who founded the center 20 years ago.
She spoke at Al Shifa hospital’s burn unit while she was visiting the wounded, including Mai Hamada, 30, and Salwa Abu al-Qomssan, 53, the caretaker, both of them with severe burns. Two more residents were in intensive care. The dead were identified as Ula Wisha, 31, and Suha Abusada, 39, whose family said she had been born severely disabled and unable to speak.
Muhammad Abu al-Qomssan, 32, the caretaker’s eldest son, said that his mother “has a soft heart,’’ and felt fortunate to have found this new job only three weeks ago. She had been to pre-dawn prayers and told him she had arrived only a few minutes before the bomb struck, he said.
Elaiwa, 59, said that her center was well-known in the neighborhood and that it had been in the same building for almost a decade. She said she had no idea why it would be bombed. “No one lived there except us,’’ she said. “There was no one else in the building.’’
At the site, neighbors picked through the rubble of modest medical equipment and scattered children’s books, from the small neighborhood children’s library Elaiwa ran. There was a seared copy of “Jane Eyre,’’ condensed, in English with Arabic translation, and an English-language copy of “Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves.’’
Neighbors like Yasir Abu Shoodq, 32, stared up at the sky through the holes the missile cut through the roof and each floor before making a crater in the ground. Children picked up the chunks of sharp steel from the crater and made off with them.
Abu Shoodq said, and Elaiwa confirmed, that there had first been a warning rocket, “a knock on the roof,’’ a few minutes before the missile hit. “But no one understood what it meant,’’ she said. “No one could imagine the center would be a target for anyone.’’ In any case, she said, the severity of the residents’ disabilities would have prevented them from fleeing on their own.
Azzedin Ali, 26, another neighbor, said angrily: “They are bankrupt of targets and of pity. What would the handicapped have been resisting? This is the enemy striking civilians in the places they think they are safe.’’
As he spoke, perhaps a mile away, a rocket was launched from Gaza toward Israel, its contrail slightly wobbly in a hot, hazy sky.
In a rare Saturday briefing for reporters at Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, a senior military official said, when asked, that the army was looking into what happened at the center for the disabled. “A group is investigating now what was the target, what was the intelligence,’’ he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity in line with military protocol.
The briefing was an apparent effort to rebuff growing international alarm at the rising death toll from the airstrikes in Gaza and the calls for restraint.
The official spoke of the difficulties the air force faced in minimizing collateral damage in the densely populated environment of Gaza, describing the mission as “very challenging,’’ and showed video clips from the air that he said demonstrated the military’s care in targeting.
One clip showed a mission that was aborted because civilians, including children, were spotted in the vicinity of the target. Another showed a strike on a three-story house the official said belonged to a Hamas brigade commander in a crowded neighborhood of Khan Younis, which set off huge secondary explosions, indicating a weapons cache.
“Hamas’ operational infrastructure is not in specific military camps or posts,’’ he said. A building with two floors may have a weapons storage site on the first floor, he said, “and above it, regular families.’’
At the mosque that was bombed Saturday, in the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, only the minaret was left standing. Young men joined the junior imam, Muhammad Hamad, 25, in digging through the rubble to save copies of the Quran and other religious works.
But this attack, one of two mosques hit Saturday, was no mistake. Here Israeli intelligence was convinced, and issued photographs to support its case, that the mosque also served as “a Hamas rocket cache and a gathering point for militants,’’ the army’s spokesman, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, said in a statement.
Hamad, the young imam, denied categorically that any weapons had been in the mosque, but it was impossible for an untrained eye to tell, in part because it was considered too dangerous to try to enter the collapsed structure. “That charge is baseless,’’ he said. “This is the house of God.’’
Neighbors said that there had been a “knock on the roof,’’ followed by the bomb a few minutes later, and that only four people were wounded because it was too early for the predawn Ramadan prayers.
Hamad said he had found a Quran open to a page with a particular sura that he felt had special meaning. “Victory is imminent for those who remain steadfast,’’ he read.
The strike on the house of the police commander killed people in the house, in eastern Gaza City, as well as people coming out of a nearby mosque after evening prayers. The apparent target, Gen. Tayseer al-Batsh, was seriously wounded, medics said.
A rocket strike outside an apartment building in Gaza City’s Sheikh Radwan neighborhood killed six Palestinians. The son of a local Hamas leader, Ismail Haniya, said the attack had targeted his aunt’s home and two of the dead were her children.
The U.N. Security Council issued a statement Saturday calling on both sides to return to a 2012 cease-fire. The statement did not point a finger, but called for “respect for international law including the protection of civilians.’’
The statement, endorsed by all 15 members of the council, was largely symbolic; it does not have the force of a resolution, which Arab countries have called for.
The difficulties for Hamas and its allies in Gaza were also on display Saturday as they fired at least 90 rockets at Israel, causing no deaths or injuries, two of them even falling into the West Bank towns of Hebron and Bethlehem.
In its most audacious attack yet, the military wing of Hamas announced at 8 p.m. that it would fire rockets at Tel Aviv an hour later. The news set off a flurry of air-raid sirens and people running to bomb shelters but the rockets caused no injuries or damage, according to initial reports.
Hamas said it fired 10 J-80 rockets at Tel Aviv and central Israel. At least three of them were intercepted above the city while others fell in open areas.
Earlier, a rocket struck a residential neighborhood of Netivot, a southern Israeli town, causing property damage. At least two rockets were fired from Lebanon into northern Israel late Saturday, the military said. In response, Israeli forces fired artillery rounds toward the launch site in Lebanon.
In Hebron, where support for Hamas is strong, thousands of Palestinians gathered on a hill to watch the incoming rockets and cheered.