A fourth day of Israeli air strikes on the Gaza Strip killed 11 more Palestinians on Friday, raising the death toll in the coastal enclave to at least 96, most of them civilians, Palestinian officials said.
Facing a possible Israeli ground invasion, militants warned international airlines they would fire rockets at Tel Aviv’s main airport. A rocket also caused the first serious Israeli casualty - one of eight people hurt when a fuel tanker was hit at a service station in Ashdod, 30 km (20 miles) north of Gaza.
Medical officials in Gaza said at least 74 civilians, including 23 children, were among those killed in the unrelenting aerial bombardments which Israel began on Tuesday.
A day after U.S. President Barack Obama told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he was willing to help negotiate a ceasefire, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas urged the United Nations Security Council to order an immediate truce.
But Israel said it was determined to end cross-border rocket attacks that intensified last month after its forces arrested hundreds of activists from the Islamist Hamas movement in the occupied West Bank following the abduction there of three Jewish teenagers who were later found killed. A Palestinian youth was killed in Jerusalem in a suspected Israeli revenge attack.
Israel’s military commander, Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz, said his forces were ready to act as needed - an indication of a readiness to send in tanks and other ground troops, as Israel last did for two weeks in early 2009: “We are in the midst of an assault and we are prepared to expand it as much as is required, to wherever is required, with whatever force will be required and for as long as will be required,” Gantz told reporters.
Western-backed Abbas, who is based in the West Bank and agreed a power-sharing deal with Gaza’s dominant Hamas in April after years of feuding, called for international help: “The Palestinian leadership urges the Security Council to quickly issue a clear condemnation of this Israeli aggression and impose a commitment of a mutual ceasefire immediately,” he said.
After the failure of the latest U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel, Abbas’s accord with Hamas angered Israel.
The rocket salvoes by the hardline movement and its allies, some striking more than 100 km (60 miles) from Gaza, have killed no one so far, due in part to interception by Israel’s partly-U.S. funded Iron Dome aerial defense system.
But racing for shelter had become a routine for hundreds of thousands of Israelis and their leaders have hinted they could order troops into the Gaza Strip, a 40-km sliver of coastline that is home to nearly two million people. Some 20,000 reservists have already been mobilized, the army says.
Hamas’s armed wing said it would fire rockets at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion international airport and warned airlines not to fly to Israel’s main gateway to the world.
The airport has been fully operational since the Israeli offensive began and international airlines have continued to fly in, with no reports of rockets from Gaza - largely inaccurate projectiles - landing anywhere near the facility, inland of the coastal metropolis. It is within an area covered by Iron Dome.
“The armed wing of the Hamas movement has decided to respond to the Israeli aggression, and we warn you against carrying out flights to Ben-Gurion airport, which will be one of our targets today because it also hosts a military air base,” said a statement by Hamas’s Izz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades.
The Israeli military said it launched fresh naval and air strikes early on Friday on Gaza, giving no further details.
An air strike on a house in the city of Gaza killed a man described by Palestinian officials as a doctor and pharmacist. Medics and residents said an aircraft also bombed a three-story house in the southern town of Rafah, killing five people.
Homes, many of them of militants, have been targeted frequently in attacks that have sent Palestinian families living nearby running into the streets in panic. Explosions echo constantly across the densely populated territory.
White streaks arcing into a blue sky, ending abruptly in flashes and dark puffs of smoke marked what the military said was the interception of three rockets over Tel Aviv.
Fire was also exchanged across Israel’s northern border. Lebanese security sources said two rockets were fired into northern Israel on Friday but they did not know who had fired them. Israel responded with artillery fire. Palestinian groups in Lebanon have often fired rockets into Israel in the past.
The Israeli military said Friday’s attack caused no damage.
Palestinians said Israeli tanks fired shells east of Rafah, ships shelled a security compound in the city of Gaza and aircraft bombed positions near the Egyptian and Israeli borders.
Prime Minister Netanyahu told Israelis in a televised statement on Thursday: “So far the battle is progressing as planned, but we can expect further stages in future. Up to now, we have hit Hamas and the terror organizations hard and as the battle continues we will increase strikes at them.”
The offensive is the deadliest since November 2012, when around 180 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed during an Israeli air campaign to punish Hamas for missile attacks. That conflict was eventually halted with mediation from Egypt, which was then governed by Hamas’s Muslim Brotherhood allies.
But Egypt, now ruled by the Brotherhood’s enemies, is today locked in a feud with Hamas over the group’s alleged support for militants in Egypt’s Sinai desert - something Hamas denies. Cairo said on Friday its “intensive efforts” with all sides to end the warfare has met only “intransigence and stubbornness”.
If Israel launches a ground invasion of Gaza, it would be the first since a three-week war in the winter of 2008-09, when some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
“We have long days of fighting ahead of us,” Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Thursday.
The Israeli military said some 550 projectiles have been fired at Israel since Tuesday and that it had targeted some 210 sites in the Gaza Strip over the past 24 hours, among them “long-range rocket launchers, Hamas leadership facilities and terror and smuggling tunnels”.
Obama told Netanyahu by telephone on Thursday that the United States was willing to help negotiate a ceasefire, the White House said. A spokeswoman for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said: “Nobody wants to see a ground invasion.”