OCCUPIED JERUSALEM: Israel dramatically escalated its aerial assault targeting hundreds of Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip Thursday as Palestinians reported the strikes also hit a home and a beachside cafe, raising the total number of people killed in this week’s offensive to at least 85.
Israel’s missile defense system also once again intercepted rockets fired by Gaza militants at the country’s two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The Israeli military said it had struck a total of some 500 targets throughout the day, focusing on underground tunnel networks and rocket launching sites. In all, the military said it has hit some 860 sites since the operation started Tuesday.
Gaza militants fired more than 140 rockets at major Israeli residential areas Thursday, Israel’s military said. Rockets fired at southern Israel damaged homes, infrastructure and spread panic. Israelis rushed to bomb shelters as sirens wailed in major cities. About 5 million Israelis are in range of the Palestinian rocket attacks.
No Israelis have been killed, but an Israeli man was seriously hurt when a rocket hit his car in the southern town of Ashdod, police said.
Israel has mobilized 20,000 reservists for a possible ground operation into Gaza, but for the time remains focused on maximizing its air campaign, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman.
Neither side is showing any sign of halting their heaviest fighting since an eight-day battle in late 2012. Israel says that Hamas must cease rocket fire from Gaza for Israel to consider a truce. Militants have fired hundreds of rockets, striking across the length of Israel and disrupting life across the country.
“The ground option needs to be the last option and only if it is absolutely necessary. It is a carefully designed plan of action,” Lerner said.
The “Iron Dome” defense system has intercepted at least 70 of the projectiles destined for major cities. The system is designed to intercept rockets headed toward populated areas, while allowing others to fall in open areas.
The limitations of the Iron Dome were seen late Thursday when a heavy barrage of Palestinian rockets hit the major southern city of Beersheba and other areas severely damaging homes.
As Israel pressed forward, the U.N. Security Council met in emergency session in New York to discuss the situation.
Addressing the meeting, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned the rocket fire out of Gaza, while also calling Israel’s offensive “intolerable.”
“Once again civilians are paying the price for the continuation of conflict,” he said. “My paramount concern is the safety and well-being of all civilians, no matter where they are.”
He said it was more urgent than ever to avoid another Israeli-Palestinian war that could engulf the entire region and called on both sides to agree to a cease-fire.
In a moment of drama, Israel’s ambassador suddenly played the piercing 15-second siren that warns Israelis to run to bomb shelters to escape rocket attacks to highlight the threat his country faces. Ron Prosor told the council that Hamas is “intentionally and indiscriminately” threatening 3.5 million Israelis and “no nation, no people and no government could tolerate this.”
Palestinian U.N. envoy Riyad Mansour had no props for his appeal to the council “to stop the bleeding” and revive the Palestinians’ “dying hopes” for an end to the conflict and peace with freedom.
“I speak on behalf of the suffering and grieving Palestinian people,who are enduring yet another barrage of death, destruction, trauma and terror,” he said.Secretary of State John Kerry, in Beijing for a summit with Chinese leaders, said the U.S. is trying to stem the surging violence in a way that allows the Jewish state to continue defending itself from Hamas rocket fire. He called it a “dangerous moment” for the Middle East.
Kerry said he has spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
French President Francois Hollande expressed his concern at the worsening crisis, his office said, calling for the escalation in violence to end and both sides to guarantee the safety of civilians.
“President Hollande expressed his concern regarding the situation in Gaza and regretted that the current military operations had caused numerous Palestinian victims,” his office said after Hollande spoke by phone with Abbas.
“The safety of all civilian populations must be guaranteed and the escalation must end. Everything must be done to restore the 2012 ceasefire,” it said.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the operation was going according to plan, with Israel targeting various Hamas interests.
“The military’s successes so far have been very significant,” he said. “We will continue until they understand that this escalation is not beneficial to them and that we will not tolerate rocket fire toward our towns and citizens.”
Palestinian medical officials said one strike early Thursday struck a home in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, killing eight members of the Al Haj family. Tractors cleared away large piles of debris from the demolished building as one man laid atop a mattress and blankets that remained.
An earlier strike killed eight people who were at a Gaza beach cafe watching the World Cup semifinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands.
The Israeli military said it was investigating both incidents. It also said it struck a car in Gaza carrying three Islamic Jihad militants involved in firing rockets. The group confirmed that its men were killed in the strike. Hamas officials said that the Palestinian side of its border crossing with Israel had also been destroyed in Israeli airstrikes.
The Health Ministry in Gaza has reported 85 deaths, including 22 Thursday. It says about half were women and children though the exact breakdown could not immediately be confirmed.
Egypt reopened its Rafah border crossing with Gaza, allowing some 150 Egyptians stranded in Gaza to return home, Egyptian security officials said.
The officials said they were allowing 17 seriously wounded Palestinians to cross for medical treatment. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media, said a total of some 500 injured Palestinians were expected to cross into Egypt for medical treatment.