Israeli air strikes shook Gaza every few minutes yesterday, and militants kept up rocket fire at Israel’s heartland in intensifying warfare that Palestinian officials said has killed at least 47 people in the Hamas-dominated enclave.
Missiles from Israel’s Iron Dome defence system shot into the sky to intercept rockets launched, for the second straight day, at Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial capital. Some were also aimed at Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant, 80km from Gaza, but were either shot down or landed in open country.
With cries of “Allahu akbar” (God is great), Palestinians in the Gaza Strip cheered as rockets streaked overhead toward Israel, in attacks that could provide a popularity boost for Islamist Hamas, whose rift with neighbouring Egypt’s military-backed government has deepened economic hardship.
Dimona, desert site of a nuclear reactor and widely assumed to have a role in atomic weaponry, was targeted by locally made M-75 long-range rockets, militants said. The Israeli army said Iron Dome shot down one and two others caused no damage — it was unclear how close they came to the town or the nuclear site.
Communities near coastal Tel Aviv and in the south, closer to Gaza, were also targeted. In the longest-range attack since Tuesday, when Israel stepped up its offensive, a rocket hit near Zichron Yaakov, a town 115km north of Gaza.
At least 41 civilians, including 12 children, were among the 47 Palestinian dead in two days of fighting, and some 300 people have been wounded, hospital officials said.
No Israeli deaths or serious injuries were reported and Israeli news reports hailed as heroes the military crews of the Iron Dome batteries, which are made in Israel and partly funded by the United States. The military said 48 rockets struck Israel yesterday, and Iron Dome intercepted 14 others.
With frequent explosions from air strikes echoing through Gaza City, its main shopping street was largely deserted. Local residents reported hundreds of attacks.
The Israeli military said it had bombarded 550 Hamas sites, including 60 rocket launchers and 11 homes of senior Hamas members. It described those dwellings as command centres.
Violence building up to the most serious hostilities between Israel and Gaza militants since an eight-day war in 2012 began three weeks ago after three Jewish students were abducted in the occupied West Bank and later found killed. Last week, a teenage Palestinian was kidnapped and found killed in Jerusalem.
Cairo brokered a truce in the conflict two years ago, but the current military government’s hostility toward Islamists in general and to Hamas, which it accuses of aiding fellow militants in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, could make a mediation role more difficult. Hamas denies those allegations.
Palestinian rocket barrages have sent Israelis racing for bomb shelters, with radio stations constantly interrupting broadcasts to announce where sirens have sounded. But the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange seemed untroubled, ending the day with shares slightly higher.
Israeli leaders, who seem to have wide popular support at home for the Gaza operation, have warned of a lengthy campaign and possible ground invasion of one of the world’s most densely populated territories, home to nearly two million Palestinians.
“We have decided to step up even more the attacks on Hamas and terrorist organizations in Gaza,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.
“The Israel Defence Forces are prepared for every option. Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing at Israeli citizens.”
Netanyahu’s security cabinet has already approved the potential mobilisation of up to 40,000 reserve troops.
Netanyahu’s office said he had discussed the situation with United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, German chancellor Angela Merkel and US secretary of state John Kerry and that he would speak to other world leaders later.
Washington backed Israel’s actions in Gaza, while the European Union and UN urged restraint on both sides. US president Barack Obama, in a German newspaper article to be published today, said: “At this time of danger, everyone involved must protect the innocent and act in a sensible and measured way, not with revenge and retaliation.”
Life appeared deceptively normal in Israeli cities, where shops were open and roads clogged with traffic. But questions were being asked on radio talkshows.
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