The Israel Defense Forces will call 6,500 reservists to duty, as part of the largest Israeli offensive on the Gaza Strip since it captured the territory in 1967.
“The Israel Defense Forces will, in the coming days, call up more reservists,” Cabinet secretary Oved Yehezkel told reporters after ministers met for a special session Sunday to discuss the operation, launched a day earlier.
Defense officials said some reservists had already been mobilized to help in protecting communities on the Gaza border from retaliatory Palestinian rocket salvoes. New reservists would help complete the armed forces’ preparations for a possible escalation of the fighting, an official said.
Meanwhile, hundreds of Israel Defense Forces infantry and armored corps troops headed for the Gaza Strip border early Sunday in preparation for a possible ground invasion, military officials said.
Israel Air Force warplanes struck at least 60 Palestinian targets in the Gaza Strip early Sunday, after a day of intensive air strikes that killed some 230 Palestinians and wounded close to 800.
The death toll had climbed to 280 by Sunday afternoon, according to Al-Jazeera. The strikes on Sunday included a mosque and a TV station.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak, meanwhile, ordered the Rafah crossing to Gaza partially opened to allow in medical supplies and basic humanitarian aid.
“Operation Cast Lead” began around 11:30 a.m. on Saturday as 64 aircraft delivered over 100 tons of explosives on 50 to 100 Hamas targets in the Strip, and was the largest Israeli operation on Gaza since 1967.
Barak told Sky News on Saturday that he would not rule out widening the offensive in the Gaza Strip to include a ground invasion.
“There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight,” he said.
Barak on Saturday also said Israel “cannot really accept” a cease-fire with Hamas, rejecting calls by the United Nations and the European Union for a truce.
“For us to be asked to have a cease-fire with Hamas is like asking you to have a cease-fire with Al-Qaeda,” Barak said in an interview with Fox News. “It’s something we cannot really accept.”
Asked whether Israel would follow up the air strikes with a ground offensive, Barak said, “If boots on the ground will be needed, they will be there.”
“Our intention is to totally change the rules of the game,” he added.
In the first attack early Sunday, Palestinians said Israeli aircraft bombed a mosque near Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, destroying it. Two bodies were retrieved from the rubble. The blast, just after midnight, blew out windows at the hospital, hospital officials said. The military said the mosque was a base for terrorist activities.
Another target early Sunday was the Al Aqsa TV station used by Hamas. Its studio building was destroyed, but the station remained on the air with a mobile unit. Palestinians counted about 20 airstrikes in the first hours of Sunday.
The massive offensive was launched in response to the unceasing rocket and mortar attacks that have traumatized southern Israel, despite a six-month truce intended to halt cross-border violence.
Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets at southern Israel on Sunday, even as the IAF continued to bomb the coastal territory.
In Israel, Netivot resident Bebert Vaknin was killed and six other Israelis were wounded when Palestinian rockets struck the western Negev.
Three Hamas officers among 230 killed in IAF strikes
Twelve hours after the strike was launched Saturday morning, at least 230 people had been killed and 780 wounded, bringing hospital services to the brink of collapse.
Of the Palestinians killed on Saturday, most were militants. The fatalities included three senior Hamas officers: Tawfik Jabber, the commander of Hamas’s police force in Gaza; his adjutant, Ismail al-Ja’abri, commander of the defense and security directorate, and Abu-Ahmad Ashur, Hamas’s Gaza central district governor.
Hamas vowed harsh retaliation for the attacks. “The Israeli occupation needs to know that it has cast itself into the fire,” said Abu Ubeida, spokesman for the organization’s military wing, the Iz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
The unprecedented assault sparked protests and condemnations throughout the Arab world, while many of Israel’s Western allies urged restraint, though the U.S. blamed Hamas for the fighting.
But there seemed to be no end in sight. Israel obliquely threatened to go after Hamas’s leaders, and militants kept pelting Israel with rockets.
In a televised statement Saturday evening, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the goal was to bring about a fundamental improvement in the security situation of the residents of the southern part of the country. He added, “It could take some time.”
At least 15 civilians killed in Saturday strikes
The Israeli air strikes caused widespread panic and confusion, and black plumes of smoke billowed above the territory, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas for the past 18 months. Some of the Israeli missiles struck in densely populated areas as students were leaving school, and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children. At least 15 civilians were killed, officials said.
“My son is gone, my son is gone,” wailed Said Masri, a 57-year-old shopkeeper, as he sat in the middle of a Gaza City street, slapping his face and covering his head with dust from a bombed-out security compound nearby.
He said he had sent his 9-year-old son out to purchase cigarettes minutes before the airstrikes began and could not find him. “May I burn like the cigarettes, may Israel burn,” Masri moaned.
Militants often operate against Israel from civilian areas, and that has led to steep civilian casualties in the past when Israel has retaliated. Late Saturday, thousands of Gazans received Arabic-language voice mails on their cell phones from the Israel Defense Forces, urging them to leave homes where militants might have stashed weapons.
The offensive began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired. The Israeli army says Palestinian militants have fired some 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week, and 10 times that number over the past year.
In Gaza City’s main security compound, bodies of more than a dozen uniformed Hamas police lay on the ground. Civilians rushed wounded people in cars and vans to hospitals because there weren’t enough ambulances to transport all the dead and wounded.
“There are heads without bodies. … There’s blood in the corridors. People are weeping, women are crying, doctors are shouting,” said nurse Ahmed Abdel Salaam from Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s main treatment center.
Military officials said aircraft released more than 100 tons of bombs in the first nine hours of fighting, focusing initially on militant training camps, rocket-manufacturing facilities and weapons warehouses that had been identified in advance.
A second wave was directed at squads who fired about 80 rockets and mortars at Israeli border communities. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Hamas’s political leaders could soon be targeted. “Hamas is a terrorist organization and nobody is immune,” she declared.