GAZA CITY: Israeli airstrikes leveled a seven-floor office building and severely damaged a two-story shopping center in the Gaza Strip Sunday, signaling a new escalation after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Israel’s bloody offensive would continue as long as necessary.
The strikes in the southern town of Rafah came just hours after Israel bombed a residential tower in Gaza City, collapsing the 12-story building with 44 apartments.
The targeting of large buildings appears to be part of a new tactic by Israel. Over the weekend, the army began warning Gaza residents in automated phone calls that it would target buildings harboring “terrorist infrastructure” and that they should stay away.
A senior military official confirmed that Israel has a policy of striking at buildings that it said contain Hamas operational centers or those from which military activities are launched. However, he said, there was now a widening of locations that the military can target.
Speaking ahead of Israel’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Gaza residents to keep their distance from Hamas militants.
“I call on the people of Gaza to immediately evacuate any structure that Hamas is using to commit acts of terror,” he said. “Every one of these structures is a target for us.”
In the 12-story building the target was a fourth-floor apartment where Hamas ran an operations center, according to Israeli media. In the past, Israel has carried out pinpoint strikes, targeting apartments in high-rises with missiles, while leaving the buildings standing.
The military declined immediate comment when asked why it collapsed the entire building instead of striking a specific apartment.
In Gaza City, an Israeli strike on a car killed Mohammed al-Ghoul, described by the Israeli military as a Hamas official responsible for “terror fund transactions.”
Ghoul was targeted three days after Israel assassinated three top Hamas commanders in the southern Gaza Strip.
In another attack Sunday, a mother and her four children were killed when their home was bombed in Jabalya refugee camp, hospital officials said. It was not clear why the dwelling was hit, and neighbors said no warning was given.Palestinian health official Ashraf al-Qidra, who confirmed the casualty figures for the strikes, said two people were also killed in a pair of airstrikes near a coastal road, including one on a group of people coming out of a mosque after morning prayers.
Two more fatalities were registered when a motorcycle following a car evacuating the wounded from the strikes was targeted, he said.
Another man was killed in an airstrike on a car, and an 18-month-old infant and a 17-year-old were killed in an airstrike on an apartment building in Gaza City.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri described Netanyahu’s warnings to Gazans to steer clear of potential targets “a clear example of war crimes” against Gaza’s civilian population.
“The occupation [Israel] has failed in confronting the resistance [Hamas] in the field, and has resorted to threats of assassination and other threats designed to scare us. But the will of our people will not be broken,” he added.
The seven-story Zourab building bombed by Israeli aircraft early Sunday housed an office of the Hamas-run Interior Ministry. Witnesses said the building in Rafah was leveled and that the strikes caused severe damage to nearby shops, homes and cars.
Another strike hit a nearby shopping center with dozens of shops, sparking a fire that gutted the two-story building and wounding seven people. After daybreak Sunday, smoke was still rising from the site as shop owners inspected the damage. Windows and doors had been blown out in nearby buildings.
The military said the two buildings were attacked because they housed facilities linked to militants, but did not provide details.
Militants kept up constant rocket and mortar strikes on southern Israel, wounding three Israelis at the Erez border crossing with the Gaza Strip. Israel said it had shut the terminal in response for all but emergency cases.
The military said 117 rockets and mortars were launched Sunday, nine of them intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome system.
With the war showing no signs of winding down, educational officials in Gaza said they were delaying the start of both U.N. and government-run schools. Classes in both were supposed to begin Sunday.
The U.N. said it would begin a gradual back to school program this week “to help students and teachers start to transition into a new school year.”
Amid persistent violence, Egypt has urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume indirect talks in Cairo on a durable cease-fire, but stopped short of issuing invitations.
Several rounds of indirect talks between Israel and Hamas have collapsed, along with temporary cease-fires that accompanied them. The gaps between Israel and Hamas on a new border deal for blockaded Gaza remain vast, and there’s no sign either is willing to budge.