Israeli warplanes blasted targets all over Gaza early today, including a mosque and a TV station, after a day of intensive airstrikes that killed more than 200 Palestinians.
The operation launched what Israel said was an open-ended campaign meant to stop rocket and mortar attacks that have traumatised the country’s south.
At least 230 Palestinians, most of them militants, died and more than 400 were wounded yesterday, one of the bloodiest days in decades of Israeli-Palestinian fighting. One Israeli was killed and six Israelis wounded.
The unprecedented assault sparked protests and condemnations throughout the Arab world and many of Israel’s Western allies urged restraint, though the US blamed Hamas for the fighting.
But there was no end in sight. Israel obliquely threatened to go after Hamas’ leaders, and militants kept pelting Israel with rockets.
Hundreds of Israeli infantry and armoured corps troops headed for the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground invasion, military officials said.
In the first attack today, 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, officials said. The military said the mosque was “a base for terrorist activities”.
Another target 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 today.
In a televised statement last night, Israeli 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.”
The Israeli airstrikes 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 children were leaving school, and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children. At least 15 civilians were killed.
Militants often operate against Israel from civilian areas, and that has led to steep civilian casualties in the past when Israel has retaliated.
Last night, thousands of Gazans received Arabic-language voicemails on their mobile phones from the Israeli military, 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.
“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 centre.
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.
Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said Hamas’ political leaders could soon be targeted. “Hamas is a terrorist organisation and nobody is immune,” she declared.
The campaign was launched six weeks before national elections. Livni and defence minister Ehud Barak hope to succeed Mr Olmert as prime minister, and the outgoing government has faced pressure to take tough action.
Gaza’s political leaders, who have been targeted in the past, went into hiding earlier this week. In a speech broadcast on local Gaza television, Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, declared his movement would not be cowed.
“We are stronger, and more determined, and have more will, and we will hold on to our rights even more than before,” Haniyeh said.
In Damascus, Syria, Hamas’ top leader, Khaled Mashaal, called on Palestinians to rekindle their fight against Israel. “This is the time for a third uprising,” he said.
The campaign embarrassed moderate Arab regimes that have encouraged Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and weakened Hamas’ rival, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who has ruled only the West Bank since Hamas violently seized control of Gaza in June 2007.
Mr Abbas condemned the attacks, but fearing violence could spiral out of control, his forces also broke up protests in the West Bank.
Britain, the EU, the Vatican, the United Nations and special Middle East envoy and former British prime minister Tony Blair called for an immediate restoration of calm. The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting today to discuss the situation.
But the US, Israel’s closest ally, blamed Hamas. “These people are nothing but thugs, so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas that indiscriminately kill their own people,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Later Israeli aircraft struck one of Hamas’ main security compounds in Gaza City, including a prison building there.
Witnesses said Israeli warplanes dropped three bombs on the Seraya compound in downtown Gaza.
In the Seraya, rescue teams started digging through the rubble. Hamas police fired in the air to keep away worried relatives of prisoners.