Gaza death toll rises as Israel air assault continues

Israel has widened its air assault against the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers, hitting a mosque it said was hiding rockets, as Palestinians said the death toll from the five-day offensive had risen above 125.

Gaza death toll rises as Israel air assault continues

Israel has widened its air assault on the Gaza Strip, hitting a mosque it claimed was hiding rockets.

While there have been no fatalities in Israel from the rocket fire, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said overnight Israeli strikes raised the death toll there to more than 125, with 920 wounded.

Dozens of the dead have been civilians.

The military claimed it had struck more than 1,100 targets, including Hamas rocket launchers, command centres and weapon manufacturing and storage facilities, in retaliation for rocket fire coming Gaza.

Officials in the territory said that besides the mosque, the strikes also hit Hamas-affiliated charities and banks, as well as a home for the disabled, killing two women.

The central Gaza mosque was being used to conceal rockets like those militants have fired nearly 700 times towards Israel over the past five days, the military said.

The offensive showed no signs of slowing down today as Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon said his country should ready itself for several more days of fighting.

“We have accumulated achievements as far as the price Hamas is paying and we are continuing to destroy significant targets of it and other terror organisations,” Mr Yaalon said after a meeting with senior security officials.

“We will continue to punish it until quiet and security returns to southern Israel and the rest of the country.”

Hamas said it hoped the mosque attack would galvanize support for it in the Muslim world.

“(It) shows how barbaric this enemy is and how much it is hostile to Islam,” said Husam Badran, a Hamas spokesman in Doha, Qatar. “This terrorism gives us the right to broaden our response to deter this occupier.”

The Israeli military released an aerial photo of the mosque it hit, saying Hamas hid rockets in it right next to another religious sites and civilian homes.

It said Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza militant groups use this tactic of abusing religious sites to conceal weapons and establish underground tunnel networks, deliberately endangering civilians.

Critics say such allegations are too sweeping, and that Israel’s heavy bombardment of one of the densely populated territories is the main factor putting civilians at risk.

Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that while using human shields violates international humanitarian law, “this does not give Israel the excuse to violate international humanitarian law as well”.

Israel issues early warnings before attacking Gaza targets and the military says it uses other means to do its utmost to avoid harming bystanders. But Ms Michaeli said civilians have been killed when Israel bombed family homes of Hamas militants or when residents were unable to leave their homes quickly enough following the Israeli warnings.

“Justifying all Israeli attacks that lead to civilian casualties by saying Hamas is using human shields is factually incorrect,” she said.

The rocket fire from Gaza militants appeared to tail off today, with a new round resuming later in the day.

The “Iron Dome”, a US-funded, Israel-developed rocket defence system, has intercepted more than 130 incoming rockets, preventing any Israeli fatalities so far.

A handful of Israelis have been wounded by rockets that slipped through.

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