The interception of rockets above Tel Aviv looks like the final straw for Israel’s high command, who appear ready to launch a ground assault on the Gaza Strip.
Ahead of what was being dubbed ‘Operation Protective Edge,’ IDF generals warned of a long-term offensive against the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, after striking nearly 100 sites in airstrikes.
Over 70 rockets fell on Israel in the first few hours of Tuesday, after 80 were fired on Monday. In direct response over 50 targets in Gaza were attacked.
Witnesses counted 14 Palestinian dead from this morning’s raids, including seven people in a three-storey accommodation block.
A telephoned warning was reportedly made to the owner of the targeted home in Khan Younis, five minutes before the bombing.
Salah Kaware, 25, who lived in the house, said that the caller urged them to leave. Several occupants were descending the upper floor stairway when the roof was hit with a rocket, he said.
The tension comes after the killing of three Israeli teenagers and the apparent revenge murder of a Palestinian teenager by three Jewish suspects.
The military said it was seeking to “retrieve stability to the residents of southern Israel, eliminate Hamas’ capabilities and destroy terror infrastructure operating against the State of Israel and its civilians”.
Nearly 300 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel in recent weeks, including a barrage of close to 100 projectiles yesterday alone, the military said.
It is a huge surge after years of relative quiet that followed a previous Israeli campaign to root out Gaza rocket launchers.
Israel has responded with dozens of airstrikes and eight Palestinian militants were killed yesterday.
Israel had signalled that it would not launch a larger offensive if the militant group Hamas ceased the rocket fire. But at the same time Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the military to prepare options for every scenario.
“We have repeatedly warned Hamas that this must stop and Israel’s defence forces are currently acting to put an end of this once and for all,” said Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev.
Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner said the current round of hostilities was being dictated by Hamas and Israel would continue its barrage as long as its citizens were under fire from Gaza.
“We don’t expect it to be a short mission on our behalf,” he said.
After a brief early morning lull, the rocket fire from Gaza resumed today with more than 15 rockets fired toward southern Israel, including the cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon.
The military said five of the projectiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defence system. A German cruise operator docking in the Ashdod port said debris fell onto one of its ships as it was departing.
None of the 2,700 holidaymakers and crew aboard the AIDAdiva was harmed and the ship continued to Crete without delay.
Israel’s defence minister announced a special state of emergency in the region today as summer camps and kindergartens were shut down and residents were encouraged to stay close to their homes.
The military said it had targeted four houses belonging to Hamas terrorists involved in launching rockets at Israel or other terrorist activity. There were no reported casualties in the strikes.
The military identified the men whose houses were targeted as Eiad Sakik, Abdullah Hshash, Samer Abu Daka and Hassan Abdullah.
In addition, the military said it struck three compounds, 18 concealed rocket launchers, and other infrastructure sites. Most were targeted by airstrikes and three were attacked from the sea. Later, it also took out a Hamas command centre embedded within a civilian building.
Gaza health official Ashraf Al-Kedra said at least nine Palestinian civilians were brought to a Gaza hospital with light to moderate injuries from the airstrikes, including several who suffered from shock. He said some of the injured Palestinians were treated and released.
Mr Lerner said the army will gradually increase its attacks on Hamas in Gaza and is recruiting additional reservists for a potential ground invasion.
Hamas has amassed about 10,000 rockets, including longer-range versions that can reach “up to Tel Aviv and beyond”, he said, adding that the military was preparing for the possibility that Hamas would launch rockets toward Israel’s heartland.
The military ordered hundreds of thousands of Israelis within a 40-kilometre (25-mile) radius of the Gaza Strip, including Israelis in the major southern city of Beersheva, to stay indoors and near shelters.
Mr Lerner said last month’s kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank was connected to the intensified rocket fire carried out by Hamas militants in Gaza.
Israel blames Hamas for the teenagers’ abduction and is conducting a manhunt for two Hamas-affiliated Palestinians in the West Bank it believes carried out the kidnapping and killing.
The Israeli government has not yet provided proof of Hamas’ involvement.
Tensions have been high since three Israeli teenagers kidnapped on June 12 in the West Bank were later found dead, followed by last week’s slaying of the Palestinian youth.
The charged climate inspired US president Barack Obama to pen an op-ed for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
“All parties must protect the innocent and act with reasonableness and restraint, not vengeance and retribution,” he said.
Mr Obama warned of a “dangerous moment” for the region after the collapse of US-backed peace talks.
“As I said last year in Jerusalem, peace is necessary, just, and possible. I believed it then. I believe it now,” he wrote.
“Peace is necessary because it’s the only way to ensure a secure and democratic future for the Jewish state of Israel.”