Israeli aircraft pounded targets across the Gaza Strip, killing 12 people and toppling an empty high-rise building, after the army warned it would go after militant facilities and hunt down leaders of the territory’s ruling Hamas group.
Militants barraged southern Israel with dozens of rockets and mortars, the army said, as fighting escalated a day after a mortar round killed a 4-year-old Israeli boy. They extended the rockets’ range to the center of the country after the 13-floor apartment building was destroyed. An Israeli military spokeswoman said the structure was a war room.
More than 2,100 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and 68 Israelis, all but four of them soldiers, have died since Israel embarked on its offensive seven weeks ago. Stakes rose earlier this week when Israeli air strikes killed three senior Hamas military leaders and apparently targeted the group’s top military commander, Mohammed Deif, killing his wife, a son and a daughter.
In televised comments yesterday, military spokesman Brigadier General Moti Almoz said Israel was preparing for a possible renewal of its ground offensive, which ended Aug. 5 under a short-lived truce. Israeli ministers authorized the call-up of 10,000 reserve troops on Aug. 21.
In leaflets, text messages and audio recordings, the military urged Gaza’s 1.8 million people today to stay away from “every site in which terrorist organizations are operating,” it said in an e-mailed statement. Israel’s campaign “has not been concluded,” it said.
A dozen people had been killed by early evening in the raids, including an 8-year-old boy, according to Gaza Health Ministry official Ashraf al-Qedra. Residents had evacuated the apartment building following the Israeli warning, and 17 people were wounded in that strike, al-Qedra said in a text message.
Militants barraged Israel with more than 80 rockets and mortars, in one case hitting the dining hall at the kibbutz, or communal farm, where the Israeli boy died yesterday. Haim Yellin, head of the Eshkol Regional Council in southern Israel, said on Channel 2 TV that as many as 70 percent of Israelis living closest to the Gaza border have left their homes.
A succession of Egyptian-brokered cease-fires have unraveled and today, Egypt issued a call for an open-ended truce, state-run Middle East News Agency reported, citing the Foreign Ministry. Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in an e-mailed statement that the group would study any proposal that would meet its demands. There was no immediate Israeli response.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for an end to the bloodshed after meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo, saying Egypt’s proposal to end the fighting was the only viable option.
According to Egypt’s Al-Shorouk newspaper, Egyptian mediators have proposed starting with a truce, then following with talks on resolving long-festering issues including Israel’s blockade of Gaza, initiated in 2006 on security grounds after Hamas won Palestinian elections. Israel has demanded assurances it won’t come under attack.
“What’s important now is to stop the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip,” Abbas said at a news conference after meeting with El-Sisi. “After that we will discuss our demands.” He said he told Hamas’s top leader, Khaled Mashaal, in their meeting yesterday in Qatar that “there is no other initiative but the Egyptian initiative.”
Egypt’s historical role as a mediator of Israeli-Gaza conflicts has been complicated this time by its antipathy toward the Islamist Hamas. The Egyptian government earlier this year banned Hamas’s activities as part of a broader crackdown on Islamist movements following El-Sisi’s ouster of President Mohamed Mursi of the Muslim Brotherhood last year.
In an interview with Yahoo News yesterday, Mashaal acknowledged that group members killed three Israeli teenagers whose abduction in the West Bank in June was a prelude to the Gaza violence.
Israel’s roundup of hundreds of Hamas militants in connection with the kidnapping set off weeks of rocket fire and air raids. Fighting escalated after a Palestinian youth was killed in Jerusalem last month in suspected retribution for the Israeli teenagers’ death, and Israel embarked on its Gaza operation days later.
Israel has carried out 5,000 strikes on Gaza, and about 3,900 rockets have been fired at Israel in the past seven weeks, the military said.
Israel, which like the U.S. and European Union considers Hamas a terrorist organization, says the group deliberately puts civilians in harm’s way by operating within residential areas and using them as human shields. In an e-mailed statement today, it said militants during the current conflict have fired more than 440 rockets from schools, medical facilities and cemeteries.
In a conversation with UN chief Ban Ki-moon, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likened Hamas to Islamic State, the al-Qaeda breakaway operating in Iraq and Syria that has beheaded opponents, for executing 22 alleged Palestinian collaborators with Israel in the past two days. “Hamas is Islamic State and Islamic State is Hamas,” he said, according to a text message from his office.
Unrest has been high in Jerusalem since the Palestinian teenager was burned alive on July 2. Today, Israeli police reported gunshots at Pisgav Zeev, which lies in the eastern sector of the city Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war and Palestinians claim as the capital of a future state. Police took aim at the origin of the fire and a Palestinian man was critically wounded, police spokeswoman Luba Samri said in a text message.