JERUSALEM -- Militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip killed three
Israelis on Thursday in a rocket attack likely to deepen a bruising
Israeli air, naval and artillery offensive against Palestinian rocket
The casualties were the first in Israel since it launched
its operation on Wednesday with the assassination of Hamas' top military
commander, followed by an onslaught of airstrikes and shelling by tanks
and naval gunboats. Eleven Palestinians, including two children and
seven militants, have been killed and more than 100 wounded in Gaza
since the Israeli operation began.
Few in the Palestinian
territory's largest urban area, Gaza City, came out following the call
for dawn prayers on Thursday, and the only vehicles plying the streets
were ambulances and media cars.
400 angry mourners braved the streets, however, to bury Hamas
mastermind Ahmed Jabari, whose body was draped in the green flag of the
Islamic militant Hamas movement. Some fired guns in the air and chanted,
"God is Great, the revenge is coming." When the body was brought into a
mosque for funeral prayers, some tried to touch or kiss it. Others
Israel said Jabari's assassination was the start of a
broader offensive, launched after days of rocket fire from the coastal
territory. It was Israel's most intense attack on Gaza since its
full-scale war there four years ago.
The fighting has deepened the
instability gripping the Middle East. Egypt recalled its ambassador to
protest the military operation.
Just days earlier, Israel was
drawn into Syria's civil war for the first time, firing missiles into
its northern neighbor for the first time in four decades after stray
mortar fire landed in Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.
aircraft, tanks and naval gunboats resumed pounded Gaza early Thursday
and about 60 rockets thudded into southern Israel as terrified residents
on both sides of the frontier holed up in their homes.
spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said two Israeli men and a woman died after a
rocket struck their four-story apartment building in the southern
Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi. A four-year-old boy was seriously
wounded in and two babies lightly wounded in the strike.
schools were ordered closed until the operation ends, and most of the
territory's 1.6 million people hunkered down close to home, venturing
out only to buy food, fuel and other basic supplies.
announced a state of emergency in Gaza, evacuating all its security
buildings and deploying its troops away from their locations.
aircraft dropped leaflets on several locations in Gaza early Thursday,
warning Gazans to stay away from Hamas, other militants and their
The Israeli military said Hamas fighters and other
militant factions, undeterred by the air attacks, bombarded southern
Israel with more than 130 rockets after the operation began. Israel's
newly deployed Iron Dome missile defense system, developed as a response
to the short-range rockets from Gaza, intercepted two dozen of them,
military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said.
declared a state of emergency in the country's south, where more than 1
million Israelis live within rocket range, instructing people to remain
close to fortified areas. School was canceled in communities within a
25-mile radius of Gaza.
People living in areas along the frontier
were ordered to stay home from work, save for essential services, and
shopping centers were closed. Israeli police stepped up patrols around
the country, fearing Hamas could retaliate with bombing attacks far from
the reaches of Gaza.
Batya Katar, a resident of Sderot, a community that has been a frequent target of rocket fire, said streets were empty there.
won't be outside. The minute they assassinated the Hamas military chief
we knew an offensive had begun. We were waiting for it, and it's about
time they did it. We have the right to live like other countries in the
Israeli officials said Wednesday that a ground invasion
was a strong possibility in the coming days if Hamas didn't rein in the
rocket fire. Mid-morning Thursday, there was no sign such an invasion
might be beginning. But the Israeli military was cleared to call up
special reserve units - a sign the operation might broaden.
military said it destroyed dozens of the militants' most potent rockets -
the Iranian-made Fajr, which is capable of striking Israel's Tel Aviv
heartland - as well as shorter-range rockets. In all, the military
estimated Hamas had 10,000 rockets and mortars in its arsenal before the
military operation began.
In a nationwide address Wednesday,
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel could no longer stand
repeated attacks on its southern towns.
"If there is a need, the
military is prepared to expand the operation. We will continue to do
everything to protect our citizens," Netanyahu declared late Wednesday.
the past four years, Israel and Hamas have largely observed an informal
truce. But in recent weeks, the calm has unraveled in a bout of rocket
attacks from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. From Israel's
perspective, Hamas escalated the situation with two specific attacks in
recent days: an explosion in a tunnel along the Israeli border and a
missile attack on an Israeli military jeep that seriously wounded four
Earlier this week, Israeli defense officials warned they
were considering resuming their controversial practice of assassinating
senior militants. Wednesday's killing of Jabari was an indication they
Israel has refrained from such attacks, which have drawn international condemnations, since its January 2009 offensive in Gaza.
officials had brushed off the Israeli threats, and Jabari, contrary to
form, was driving in broad daylight when his vehicle was hit.
Hamas military chief had long topped Israel's most-wanted list, blamed
for masterminding a string of deadly attacks that including a bold,
cross-border kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in 2006. He also was
believed to be a key player in Hamas' takeover of Gaza in 2007 from a
rival Palestinian faction, the Western-backed Fatah movement.
say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the
complications associated with a ground operation such as civilian and
Israeli troop casualties, and that they also prevent future attacks by
removing the masterminds. Critics say they amount to extrajudicial
killings and invite retaliation by militants and encourage them to try
to assassinate Israeli leaders.
During a wave of suicide bombings
against Israel a decade ago, the country employed the tactic to
eliminate the upper echelon of Hamas leadership.
Netanyahu of launching Wednesday's operation to win votes in the Jan. 22
parliamentary election. But major Israeli parties, including the dovish
opposition, all lined up behind Netanyahu.
Still, the region has
changed greatly since the Gaza offensive four years ago. Neighboring
Egypt is now governed by Hamas' ideological counterpart, the Muslim
Israel and Egypt signed a peace accord in 1979.
Relations, never warm, deteriorated after longtime Egyptian President
Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a popular uprising last year. The Jabari
assassination threatened to further damage those fraying ties.
Washington, the United States lined up behind Israel. "We support
Israel's right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to
take every effort to avoid civilian casualties," said State Department
spokesman Mark Toner.
President Obama spoke with Netanyahu and the
two men agreed Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow
tensions to ease, the White House said.
Obama spoke separately to
Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, given Egypt's central role in
preserving regional security, the White House said. The two men agreed
on the need to de-escalate the conflict as quickly as possible.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for calm and urged both sides to respect international humanitarian law.
Wednesday night, the U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors to
consider an Egyptian request for an emergency meeting on Israel's
military action in Gaza. The Palestinians asked the council to act to
stop the operation.