Sheltering for safety … Israelis in the town of Nitzan take refuge in a large concrete pipe used as a bomb shelter after a rocket was launched from the Gaza Strip on Thursday. Photo: Getty Images
Jabalya, Gaza: In a house in the northern Gaza town of Jabalya a group of women gather in quiet mourning. A missile hit their small house just an hour ago, the bloody clothes of one of the victims still lie in the courtyard.
It was unclear at the time of going to press about the origin of the attack, if it came from an Israeli drone or was actually a rocket fired from Gaza.
Loud explosions rock the area and people scramble for shelter. Elsewhere the streets are eerily quiet.
Attacks escalate on the Israel-Gaza border
Palestinians inspect the destroyed office building of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniya in Gaza City. Photo: AFP
The two victims were a four-year-old boy and a 24-year-old man who was a carpenter, relatives said.
As speculation mounted that Israel was preparing for a ground offensive on Gaza - with tanks seen heading south towards the border and the Defence Minister approving the call-up of 30,000 army reservists - Egypt's Prime Minister, Hesham Kandil, arrived in the Gaza Strip to try to broker a ceasefire.
On a visit to a Gaza hospital, he blamed Israel for the conflict.
''This tragedy cannot pass in silence and the world should take responsibility in stopping this aggression,'' he said.
The Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, agreed to halt airstrikes on Gaza for three hours while Mr Kandil visited the area. The offer was made on the condition of a similar ceasefire from militants in Gaza.
At least 20 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed since Israel began its offensive on Wednesday.
Before Mr Kandil's visit, the boom of rockets had echoed throughout southern Israel and Gaza, as alert sirens sounded across Be'er Sheva, Ofakim and Sderot and a rocket hit an empty house in the Sha'ar Ha'Negev region. The Iron Dome missile system intercepted six rockets fired at the Israeli city of Ashkelon, while six rockets landed in open areas in the Eshkol region.
Residents reported large explosions rocking the heavily populated coastal enclave throughout the night. There were also reports of one rocket launched from Gaza into Ashkelon, as residents in the south stayed close to bomb shelters and safe rooms after facing hundreds of rockets fired by militants in the past two days.
Israel said more than 300 missiles had been fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel since Wednesday afternoon, when an Israeli air strike killed the military leader of Hamas, Ahmed al-Jabari.
A rocket fired at Tel Aviv - believed to be an Iranian supplied Fajr-5 - fell into the sea just near the port of Jaffa to the south, an Israeli security source said.
A second rocket landed in an open area near the neighbouring city of Rishon Le'Tzion, officials said, indicating a serious shift in Hamas tactics by aiming their attacks towards central Israel.
In response to the rocket attacks deeper into the country, Israel reportedly launched a ferocious air and sea assault on Gaza, hitting as many as 80 targets in just 30 minutes, with the home of an al-Aqsa Brigade commander among those hit.
The threat of war drew renewed calls for calm from civilians on both sides.
Michal Vasser, a resident of a southern Israeli neighbourhood, wrote an impassioned plea to the country's leaders to stop the escalation in violence.
''I am sitting in my safe room in Kibbutz Kfar Aza and listening to the bombardment of the all-out war outside. I am no longer able to distinguish between 'our' bombardments and 'theirs','' she wrote in Haaretz newspaper.
In Gaza, Mona Qasim El-Farra, a doctor, said the shelling was so loud and so close on Thursday night that her building shook.
''It is so frequent, so loud it shakes the tower … so close I am on the floor,'' she wrote on her Facebook page, describing the jet fighters as ''ugly noises carrying death and destruction''.
Attempts by Egypt to broker a ceasefire in Cairo have reportedly led nowhere, leaving many in Gaza and southern Israel fearing the worst may be yet to come.
Both Mr Netanyahu and the Hamas Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, gave defiant speeches, vowing to defend their people and hit back against the violence.
Since ''Operation Pillar of Defence'' began on Wednesday, Palestinians in Gaza have reported at least 19 killed and more than 150 wounded in Israeli air strikes. Meanwhile, rockets and mortars fired from Gaza into Israel have left three dead and at least five wounded.
Israel's Iron Dome defence system has intercepted more than 130 rockets bound to hit populated areas, the defence force said.
Israel was keeping all options open, including a possible ground assault, the spokesman for Mr Netanyahu, Mark Regev, said. ''What we saw today with the alert in Tel Aviv shows we are dealing with a formidable terrorist regime,'' he told the BBC. ''We have to deal with this threat to protect our people.''
He declined to confirm reports that Israeli troops were massing on the Gaza border.
Israel has continued to leave the threat of a ground offensive in Gaza on the table, with the Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, reportedly approving calling up more than 30,000 reservists.
Associated Press has reported Israeli forces were moving towards the Gaza border, while the sight of at least two large Israeli tanks being transported on the back of trucks travelling south towards Gaza might be seen as a further indication of Israel's preparation for a land assault.
The three Israeli civilians died as they tried to flee to a fortified stairwell in their four-storey building in Kiryat Malachi. After the deaths of Aharon Smajda, 49, Itzik Amsalem, 24, and Mirah Sharf, 27 - who was reportedly pregnant - Mr Netanyahu accused Hamas of committing war crimes. ''No government would tolerate a situation where nearly a fifth of its people live under a constant barrage of rockets and missile fire, and Israel will not tolerate this situation,'' he said. "This is why my government has instructed the Israeli Defence Forces to conduct surgical strikes against the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza … to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people."
Mr Haniyeh accused Israel of ''cowardly and shameless aggression that is used to kill innocent people, children, women and men''.
"It is the [Israeli] occupation that is fully responsible for the state of war," Mr Haniyeh said.
Hamas, an Islamist movement considered a terrorist group by Israel, the US and the European Union, has appealed to Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood for help.
Israel's leaders say the assassination of Mr Jabari was necessary to defend its civilians against a relentless barrage of rockets fired into southern Israel. But Hamas says Israel initiated the recent outbreak of hostilities when its soldiers killed a 13-year-old Palestinian boy, Ahmed Younis Khader Abu Daqqa, who was shot while playing football with friends in front of his house in Abassan village, near the southern Gaza town of Khan Yunis.
Hospitals in Gaza were struggling to cope with casualties and running dangerously low on basic supplies, the human rights group Medical Aid for Palestinians said. And in further reports of civilian casualties, an Arabic teacher at a UN school was killed and his brother severely injured in an Israeli airstrike, said Christopher Gunness, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency UNRWA.
Thousands lined the streets of Gaza on Thursday for the funeral of Mr Jabari, who was killed in an Israeli air strike as he drove through Gaza City.