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“Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the responsibility for the consequences,” Islamic Jihad said.
Southern Israeli communities within rocket range of Gaza were on full alert, and schools were ordered closed for Thursday. About one million Israelis live in range of Gaza’s relatively primitive but lethal rockets, supplemented in recent months by longer-range, more accurate systems.
“The days we face in the south will, in my estimation, prove protracted,” Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, Israel’s chief military spokesman, told Channel 2 TV.
The Israeli cabinet gave preliminary authorisation for the mobilisation of military reserves if required, Netanyahu’s office said.
Asked if Israel might send in ground forces, Mordechai said: “There are preparations, and if we are required to, the option of an entry by ground is available.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres briefed U.S. President Barack Obama on the operation, Peres’s office said. He told Obama that Jaabari was a “mass-murderer” and his killing was Israel’s response to Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza.
“Israel is not interested in stoking the flames, but for the past five days there has been constant missile fire at Israel and mothers and children cannot sleep quietly at night,” said Peres, who visited the border town of Sderot earlier.
In the flare-up that was prelude to Wednesday’s offensive, more than 115 missiles were fired into southern Israel from Gaza and Israeli planes launched numerous strikes.
Seven Palestinians, three of them gunmen, were killed. Eight Israeli civilians were hurt by rocket fire and four soldiers wounded by an anti-tank missile.
The leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, called on Arab states, especially Egypt, to halt the assault. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council said the U.N. Security Council should put pressure on Israel to stop its attacks.
Israel holds a general election on Jan. 22 and Netanyahu has pledged to retaliate harshly against Hamas. But Israel is also wary of the reaction from Mursi’s Egypt, whose ruling Muslim Brotherhood is the spiritual mentor of Hamas.
Hamas has been emboldened by its rise to power, viewing Mursi as a “safety net” who will not permit a second Israeli thrashing of Gaza, home to 1.7 million Palestinians.
Hamas is also supported by Iran, which Israel regards as a rising threat to its own existence due to its nuclear programme.
Helped by the contraband trade through tunnels from Egypt, Gaza militias have smuggled in longer-range rockets.
But their estimated 35,000 Palestinian fighters are still no match for Israel’s F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter gun ships, Merkava tanks and other modern weapons systems in the hands of a conscript force of 175,000, with 450,000 in reserve.