OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel launched its largest offensive in nearly two years, carrying out a blistering aerial assault Tuesday on scores of targets and killing 25 people in what officials called an open-ended operation aimed at ending weeks of heavy rocket fire.
As the Gaza-based Hamas movement unleashed salvoes of rockets on Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Israel mobilized forces along the border for a possible ground invasion.
The offensive set off the heaviest fighting between Israel and Hamas since an eight-day battle in November 2012.
Hamas fired about 160 rockets at Israel, including two intercepted over Tel Aviv, while Israel said it attacked more than 150 sites across Gaza.
Palestinian medics reported at least 19 fatalities, including six people killed in an airstrike that flattened an apartment building in southern Gaza and set off widespread panic.
In a nationally televised statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said continued rocket attacks on Israeli communities would not be tolerated. “Therefore I have ordered the military to significantly broaden its operation against Hamas terrorists and against the other terrorist groups inside Gaza,” he said. “I call on you to display patience because this operation could take time.”
Tensions have been rising since three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped in the West Bank on June 12. Accusing Hamas of being behind the abductions, Israel launched a crackdown on the group in the West Bank and arrested hundreds of people. Hamas, which controls Gaza, responded by stepping up rocket fire.
The situation deteriorated last week after the bodies of the Israeli youths were found, and a Palestinian teen in Jerusalem was abducted and burned to death in a revenge attack. Six Jewish Israelis have been arrested in the killing, and the rocket fire from Gaza has increased in recent days.
In its fiercest attack Tuesday, an airstrike flattened the home of a Hamas militant in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younes, reducing the concrete structure into a smoldering pile of rubble.
Panicked residents fled, some with bloody faces. Palestinian medical officials said six people, including two children, were killed.
Late Tuesday, the normally bustling streets of Gaza City were deserted. Fearing an Israeli ground operation, many residents from areas near the border moved to stay with relatives living deeper inside Gaza.
In southern Israel, hundreds of thousands of citizens were ordered to stay close to home because of the rockets. Israeli streets were also quieter in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem after attempted rocket strikes set off air-raid sirens in Israel’s two largest cities.
Hamas twice fired rockets at Tel Aviv, sending people scurrying for cover, as both projectiles were intercepted by the “Iron Dome” rocket defense system. The second interception was shown on live TV, as a winding plume of smoke followed the interceptor into the black skies, culminating with a flash.
Hamas also said it fired a salvo of four rockets toward Jerusalem, and two distant booms could be heard from the city’s center.
One rocket landed in the Jerusalem area, officials said, and police said there were no injuries.
The army was also checking reports that rockets had targeted Haifa, which would mark the deepest strikes ever carried out by Hamas.
In other violence, the Israeli military said it foiled an attempt by Gaza militants to infiltrate a military base in southern Israel by sea. A military spokesman said four attackers made it to shore and attacked the base with grenades and automatic rifles before they were killed. An Israeli soldier was slightly wounded.
As Israel built up forces along the border, the government authorized the army to activate up to 40,000 reservists. The army said that about 1,000 soldiers were immediately activated, in addition to an earlier group of 1,500 reservists called into action.
“If we need to go inside in a ground operation, then we will do it. These things are on the table. These options exist. We will not stop anything until the rocket firing ends,” said Yitzhak Aharonovitch, the internal security minister. Asked by Channel 2 TV if there were any efforts underway to reach a cease-fire, he said: “Not now.”The U.S. State Department condemned the rocket fire on Israeli civilians, defended Israel’s right to defend itself, and said it hoped Israel’s “strong message” would deter further attacks. “But certainly, our preference is to de-escalate the situation on the ground,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
In Gaza, Abu Obeida, a masked spokesman for Hamas’ military wing, accused Israel of violating that agreement and demanded that it halt its airstrikes, its recent crackdown in the West Bank and its opposition to a recent Palestinian unity government backed by Hamas.
“In the face of this aggression, we affirm that the Zionist enemy should not dream of calm and stability,” he said.