Gaza City (Gaza Strip): Hamas sent a heavy barrage of rockets deep into Israel on Thursday as Israel pounded Gaza with more airstrikes and shells and called up 9,000 more reservists who could be used to stage a ground invasion.
The hostilities intensified despite mediation efforts by Egyptian negotiators who held in-person talks with both sides.
In another potential escalation, at least three rockets were fired from southern Lebanon toward Israel, an attack that threatened to open a new front in the fighting.
The artillery and tank shells that began falling into Gaza in the evening forced scores of families to flee their homes, Palestinian witnesses said.
The use of artillery fire in Israel’s four-day-old offensive raised the likelihood of civilian casualties.
Previous fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, including a devastating 2014 war, was largely confined to the impoverished and blockaded Palestinian territory and Israeli communities on the frontier.
But this round seems to be rippling farther and wider than at any time since the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
While some rocket attacks have reached the Tel Aviv area, Arab and Jewish mobs have rampaged through the streets, savagely beating people and torching cars. Flights have been canceled or diverted away from the country’s main airport.
Weary Palestinians, meanwhile, somberly marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Thursday as militants fired one barrage of rockets after another and Israel carried out waves of bone-rattling airstrikes.
Since the rockets began Monday, Israel has toppled three high-rise buildings that it said housed Hamas facilities after warning civilians to evacuate.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll has climbed to 87 Palestinians, including 18 children and eight women, with 530 people wounded. Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of seven militants, while Hamas has acknowledged 13 of its militants killed, including a senior commander. Israel says the number of militants dead is much higher.
Seven people have been killed in Israel. Among them were a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a 6-year-old child hit in a rocket attack.
Many world leaders have condemned the violence and urged restraint, and a visit by Egyptian security officials was a significant development in international efforts to bring about a cease-fire; such efforts have been key to ending past rounds of fighting.
The officials met first with Hamas leaders in Gaza before holding talks with the Israelis in Tel Aviv, two Egyptian intelligence officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Still, both Israel and Hamas seemed determined to press ahead.
Even as word came of the mediators’ presence, Gaza militants fired a volley of some 100 rockets nearly simultaneously, raising air raid sirens around southern and central Israel.
There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties — but the barrage appeared aimed at demonstrating that Hamas’ arsenal was still full even after three nights of airstrikes and the killing Wednesday of several Hamas leaders involved in the rocket program.
“The decision to bomb Tel Aviv, Dimona and Jerusalem is easier for us than drinking water,” a spokesman for Hamas’ military wing declared in a video message. Dimona is the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor.
It was unclear who was responsible for the rockets fired from southern Lebanon, according to Lebanese security officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
The rockets were launched from the Qlayleh area north of Naqoura, near the border with Israel.
The Israeli military confirmed that the rockets fell into the Mediterranean. South Lebanon is home to Palestinian militant factions as well as the powerful Shiite Hezbollah group.
The evening shelling occurred in northern communities near the Israeli frontier and in eastern Gaza City. Resident Ibrahim Jamal said about 200 people sought shelter in a United Nations school.
In another sign fighting could escalate further, Israel’s defense minister approved the mobilisation of 9,000 more reservist troops, and Israel’s military spokesman said forces were massing on the border with the Gaza Strip.
The Defense Ministry said Thursday that the latest mobilization approved by Defense Minister Benny Gantz was an “exceptional call-up.”
The military’s chief spokesman, Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, said forces were “preparing the option of a ground maneuver.”
He told Israeli public television station Kan that tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery were being readied “for this option for mobilization at any given moment.”
But the level of forces was not believed to be strong enough yet for a possible ground invasion.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited batteries of the Iron Dome missile defense system, which the military says has intercepted 90 per cent of the 1,200 rockets that have reached Israel from Gaza so far.
“It will take more time, but … we will achieve our goal — to restore peace to the State of Israel,” he said.
The previous evening, Israeli TV reported Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet authorized a widening of the offensive that the military says has already hit 600 targets in Gaza. (AP)