GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — A bloody spike in Israel-Hamas fighting put the Israeli city of Ashkelon and its 110,000 residents at the center of an intensifying militant rocket barrage Thursday — and Israel's defense minister warned he would invade Gaza, if necessary, to halt the attacks.
Israel killed 20 Palestinians in almost a dozen airstrikes, including a missile attack on a guard post outside the home of Gaza's Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. Hamas leaders have been in hiding in recent weeks, though Israel has so far targeted only militants, not Hamas politicians.
The dead Thursday included members of rocket squads as well as five children ages 8 to 12 who relatives said were playing soccer when they were killed in a missile strike.
Israel has been reluctant to invade Gaza, amid concerns of getting bogged down there, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak told his security chiefs Thursday that an offensive is a definite option. "The major ground operation is real and tangible. We are not afraid of it," Barak said, according to a participant in the closed meeting.
Barak told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the British foreign minister by phone that Israel would step up its response to the rocket fire but that a ground offensive wasn't imminent.
Since Wednesday, 31 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli missile strikes, including 14 civilians, among them eight children, according to Palestinian officials.