Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM — Israel warned Wednesday that its offensive in the Gaza Strip would intensify in coming days as rockets launched by Hamas militants penetrated deeper than ever into the Jewish state and Israeli airstrikes killed more than two dozen people in the seaside Palestinian enclave.
Neither side appeared willing to back down or heed appeals for calm, with Israeli officials vowing to cripple Hamas' military capabilities in Gaza — possibly through a forceful ground incursion. The extremist group's leader blaming Israel for destroying Palestinian homes and wantonly killing civilians.
The secretary-general of the Arab League, Nabil Elaraby, called for an urgent meeting of the United Nations Security Council. A statement from Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's office said intensive efforts were under way to broker an end to the deadliest outbreak of violence between Hamas-controlled Gaza and Israel since November 2012. Then, Egypt's intervention led to a cease-fire that had held relatively well until recent days.
But whether Cairo can exert the same influence now is unclear. El-Sissi's administration is cool toward Hamas and has shut down tunnels used to smuggle weapons from Egypt into Gaza. El-Sissi's predecessor, Mohammed Morsi, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and boasted closer ties with the hard-line Hamas, which denies Israel's right to exist.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he had spoken with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as well as el-Sissi and other Arab leaders to urge them to pressure Israel to stop its offensive in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu countered with his own calls to Ban, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to explain that his government was responding to an intolerable situation of attacks on Israel's civilian population.
Rockets rained down on parts of Israel throughout the day Wednesday, sending residents scrambling for cover in communities dozens of miles away, including Tel Aviv. More than 200 rockets launched by Hamas and other militant groups such as Islamic Jihad hit Israel in less than 48 hours, military officials said.
Hamas said it launched a rocket at Haifa, nearly 90 miles north of Gaza. Although the rocket fell slightly short of the coastal city, the attempt demonstrated the significantly expanded reach of the group's armory.
Seven rockets also targeted Dimona — not as distant as Haifa, but home to Israel's nuclear reactor. Three of the rockets were neutralized by Israel's missile-defense system, known as the Iron Dome; four landed in open areas.
So far, there have been no reports of Israeli fatalities or serious injuries from the rocket fire.
In Gaza, families mourned about 30 people killed by Israel's aerial bombardment Wednesday, which brought the total number of dead to at least 55 since the military commenced its operation early Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing medical sources in Gaza. They said Wednesday's victims included at least four children: two brothers, 11 and 13; a 4-year-old boy; and a 14-year-old boy.
The airstrikes on Gaza targeted weapons caches, command centers, smuggling tunnels, homes of suspected militants and the suspected militants themselves. Smoke billowed into the sky from damaged and demolished buildings.
"We have decided to further increase the assault on Hamas and the terrorist organizations in Gaza," Netanyahu said, after consultations with military officials Wednesday afternoon. "Our military is strong, the home front is steadfast and our people are united. This combination is our response to the terrorist organizations that want to attack us."
By Wednesday afternoon, Israel's air campaign had struck 550 targets across the Gaza Strip, including 60 rocket-launching sites and 31 tunnels, the military said.
The Israeli government is also mobilizing up to 40,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground incursion into Gaza, with a population of 1.8 million people. Such an operation that would probably have to last for days to be effective in rooting out militants and hidden weapons stockpiles.
So far, the call-up of the reservists has been selective, drafting troops for headquarters, aerial defense and home-front assignments. Some of the reservists will relieve troops stationed in the West Bank to free them up to take positions around Gaza or for a ground operation, a military official said.
"The battle against Hamas will become wider in coming days. It won't be a short campaign, and we should be patient," Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.
"Over the last few years, Hamas has built up in Gaza a very formidable terrorist military machine, and we are now acting to dismantle that machine," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told Sky News. "Over the last two, three weeks, there have been messages sent to Hamas: Stop the rocket fire, that quiet will be met by quiet. … Hamas did not heed our warnings."
Israeli military spokesman Peter Lerner said a rocket that on Tuesday struck the town of Hadera, more than 70 miles from Gaza, was an M-302, similar to those found on a ship intercepted in the Red Sea by the Israeli navy in March. About 40 such rockets, each with a range of up to nearly 100 miles, were recovered from the ship, which Israel says was destined for the Gaza Strip.
The sharp increase in armed hostilities follows the kidnapping and killing last month of three Israeli teenagers, which Israel blames on Hamas, and the killing of a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem last week by suspected Jewish extremists, apparently in revenge.