Jerusalem: Israel began an intensive aerial bombardment in Gaza, hitting more than 50 targets, including at least four homes that the military said belonged to militants. Palestinian officials and witnesses in Gaza said at least 16 people had been killed, including seven people in a three-storey house obliterated by an Israeli rocket that went through the roof.
It was the deadliest day so far in the latest resurgence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fed partly by the raw rage over the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank last month and what appeared to be the grisly revenge kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem last week.
The aerial barrage on Tuesday followed the firing of about 80 rockets out of Gaza on Monday that reached deep into southern Israel. Military officials said additional reservists were being called up in anticipation of a possible ground assault.
An Israeli missile explodes on impact in Rafah, southern Gaza Strip. Photo: AP
Israelis ran for cover as sirens sounded in the business capital. Air raid sirens later sounded in Jerusalem.
The military said its Iron Dome interceptor shot down the rocket which the Islamic Jihad militant group said it had fired.
Explosions echoed across densely populated Gaza, shaking buildings and sending up plumes of smoke. In residential areas, children could be heard crying as ambulance sirens wailed.
A Palestinian woman outside her home after a deadly strike on her house. Photo: AFP
At least 12 civilians, including five children, were among the 16 dead in Gaza, Palestinian officials said. On the Israeli side, medics said rocket impacts wounded at least two people.
Witnesses and Health Ministry officials in Gaza said the first of at least three deadly Israeli air strikes on Tuesday destroyed a car in Gaza City, killing three unidentified occupants. The second was an Israeli rocket that witnesses said had been fired by an F-16 warplane on a house in Khan Younis, a town in south-east part Gaza, where seven occupants were found dead in the wreckage.
A telephoned warning was made to the owner of the targeted home in Khan Younis five minutes before the bombing, apparently part of the Israeli military's stated effort to minimise unintended civilian casualties.
An Israeli Apache helicopter fires a rocket towards the Gaza Strip as seen from a lookout point near the Israeli town of Sderot. Photo: Reuters
Salah Kaware, 25, who lived in the house, said that a call came to the mobile phone of his brother's wife, and that the caller urged them to leave. Some of the occupants were descending the upper floor stairway when the roof was hit with a rocket, Mr Kaware said.
An unidentified member of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls Gaza, was killed in a third airstrike, in an open space in central Gaza.
Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qedra said more than 50 people had been wounded since the Israeli air assaults had begun.
People gather around a vehicle, believed to have carried Hamas members, that was targeted in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City. Four people were killed, medics said. Photo: AFP
The Israeli military said that its targets had included what it called a "terror command centre embedded within civilian infrastructure" utilised by a militant in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.
The air campaign comes after three weeks of escalating confrontation, with rocket attacks from Gaza against southern Israel, and Israeli air strikes on targets it has described as concealed rocket launchers, training sites and weapons manufacturing facilities associated with Hamas and other militant groups.
Early Tuesday, the Israel Defence Forces announced on Twitter that they had "commenced Operation Protective Edge in Gaza against Hamas in order to stop the terror Israel's citizens face on a daily basis".
Israeli soldiers patrol near an Iron Dome air defence system in Ashkelon, Israel. Photo: Getty Images
Israeli Defence Minister, Moshe Yaalon, said, "Hamas is leading this current confrontation to a place in which it aspires to exact a heavy price from our home front."
"In the last few hours we have attacked with force and struck dozens of Hamas' assets," Mr Yaalon added, saying that the military was "continuing its offensive effort in a manner that will exact a very heavy price from Hamas". He said the campaign was likely to last more than a few days.
"We will not tolerate rocket fire against our cities and townships, and therefore I ordered a significant broadening of IDF (Israel Defence Force) operations against the terrorists of Hamas and other terror groups in the Gaza Strip," Israeli's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
Beach goers run for cover as air raid sirens, warning of incoming rockets, sound in Tel Aviv. Photo: Reuters
The government approved the call-up of 1500 reservists and said later on Tuesday that it had authorised the military to mobilise as many as 40,000 additional reservists if necessary.
Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Lerner said that Israel was "watching to see what the reaction is with Hamas, to see how they respond to our steps".
His comments echoed those of other officials and experts, who have suggested that the initial blitz was meant as a warning, with the hope that Hamas would rein in its fire to avoid a ground invasion.
Hamas has threatened an "earthquake" against Israel. But on Tuesday the group offered to restore calm if Israel halted the Gaza offensive, recommitted to a 2012 Egyptian-brokered truce and freed prisoners it detained in the West Bank last month.
"The enemy must not think about enjoying security unless these terms are met," the Hamas armed wing spokesman said.
Israel has banned gatherings of more than 300 people and ordered kindergartens, summer camps and schools to close for the day in a 40-kilometre radius around Gaza. The military estimates that there are some 10,000 rockets, both homemade and imported, in Gaza.
New York Times, Reuters