Israel began moving troops toward the Gaza Strip on Thursday and authorized the call-up of reservists for a possible ground invasion of the Palestinian territory.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak announced that he had authorized the army to draft reserve forces of as many as 30,000 troops for possible ground action following the firing of nearly 200 rockets into southern Israel on Thursday.
On Thursday, rockets slammed into villages and neighborhoods in southern Israel, killing three Israelis. Capt. Eytan Buchman of the Israeli Defense Forces said the military wants to be ready in case it is asked to move into Gaza.
“If we receive the directive … we’re prepared to implement it,” he said.
The Israeli military Thursday launched a second day of air assaults and naval attacks on Gaza to stop the nearly 500 rockets that have been fired into southern Israel over the past several days.
On Wednesday the IDF fired a missile into the car of a military commander for Hamas, the anti-Israel faction that controls Gaza, killing him. The IDF said its air and naval strikes have hit 230 targets across Gaza and are focused on ammunition dumps and rocket-making facilities.
Israelis in the south of the country and Palestinians in Gaza were seeking shelter to avoid the violence.
Streets were deserted in southern Israeli towns and Gazans lined up at bakeries, grocery stores and gas stations to stockpile for what they see is possibly a long siege.
“I spent my day looking for fuel, I stood in a long line but I didn’t manage to get even a whole gallon for our generator,” said Haitham Hadad, 50, a shop owner from just north of Gaza City. “Now I have to stand in another long line in order to supply my family with bread in case things became worse.
“I am really worried – this reminds me a lot of the 2009 war,” he said.
Hamas, a designated terror organization by the United States and European Union, has orchestrated the firing of nearly 1,000 rockets into southern Israel this year. After a lull of weeks the rockets resumed over the weekend.
The deaths in the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi were the first in Israel since the recent rocket barrage began.
“The military will continue acting to establish deterrence against Hamas and to return the calm,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during a tour of southern Israel. He praised citizens for coping with the “tough moments to come.”
Israel’s prime minister says the army is prepared for a “significant widening” of its operation in the Gaza Strip. Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters on Thursday that Israel has “made it clear” it won’t tolerate continued rocket fire on its civilians.
The Israeli army says a rocket has reached the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv, by far the farthest strike by Gaza militants in two days of fighting. The Israeli military released a series of videos showing black-and-white footage of its targets being struck: weapon depots and rocket launching pads.
The rocket that hit Kiryat Malachi, a working-class town a few miles from Gaza, struck a four-story residential building. Three people were killed and seven injured, including small children, the Israeli government said. Two men and a pregnant mother of three died, the government said.
The apartment that was hit had a hole in its living room wall. The floor was strewn with broken glass, clothes, shattered furniture. Some apartment dwellers here have safe rooms reinforced with concrete due to the frequency of rocket attacks, but this one did not. Blood could be seen on the building stairwell even hours later.
Israelis here wait for warnings from the government when a rocket has been spotted. Usually they have about a 15-second warning.
“I heard the siren wail and ran with my family into the bomb shelter,” said Stav Rahamim, 16, who lives in the building next door. “Then I heard a boom and the whole building shook. I was scared. The people who were killed were good people.”
In Ashkelon, a coastal community of 150,00 residents, Yarden Bitan, 20, was walking to the store to buy a loaf of bread when she heard the sirens. She and her sister, May, ran to a community shelter several yards away.
A soldier, Yarden says life here is stressful.
“it’s been very frightening for years now,” she said. “The iron dome (Israel’s anti-missile defense system funded by the USA) is shooting down a lot of the rockets, but it’s still scary.”
The Iron Dome intercepted about 30 rockets, the IDF said.
Ashkelon Mayor Benny Vaknin says the violence is not a battle between two armies.
“This is a battle between us and a terror organization firing from a civilian neighborhood,” he said. “We do everything to prevent civilian casualties. They are targeting our children, our schools, our kindergartens.”
Explosions on Thursday rocked Gaza. Few in the territory’s largest urban area, Gaza City, came out and the only vehicles on the streets were ambulances and media cars.
Most Gazans followed the news on Hamas-run TV and local radio stations. Many also provided updates on their Facebook and Twitter accounts, providing news about airstrikes and rocket launches. Others shared prayers and called for militants to stand tough against Israel.
Fifteen Palestinians, including seven civilians, have been killed and more than 100 people wounded, according to Palestinian medical officials. Among the dead were three children, it said.
“I am trying to calm my children when they hear the sound of explosions,” said Zainab Nimr, a 33-year-old mother of three. “We have enough food and water for four days, so I asked my husband to go out and get extra supplies. No one knows when this will end.”
Israel killed Hamas mastermind Ahmed Jabari on Wednesday with a missile fired at his car as it was motoring on a Gaza street. Thousands of people, including top Hamas officials, attended the funeral for Jabari, who had long topped Israel’s most-wanted list for his role in deadly attacks and building up Hamas’ formidable arsenal.
“We want to kill in the name of God,” chanted mourners as angry gunmen fired automatic weapons into the air. Hundreds of people raised their index fingers in the air, chanting, “God is great.”
“This crime will not weaken us. It will make us stronger and more determined to continue the path of jihad and resistance,” Hamas lawmaker Mushir al-Masri said in a eulogy. “The enemy opened the battle and shall bear the consequences.”
Israel said Jabari’s assassination was the start of a broader offensive, launched after days of rocket fire from the coastal territory. It was Israel’s most intense attack on Gaza since a full-scale invasion four years ago, also in response to rocket fire.
Egypt, now governed by the political party of the Muslim Brotherhood of which Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot, recalled its ambassador to Israel on Wednesday. Egypt’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr also spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton late Wednesday, asking for “immediate U.S. intervention to stop the Israeli aggression,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The U.S. State Department said Israel has the right to defend itself from the rockets and it called on Hamas to cease the barrages.
President Obama spoke with Netanyahu and the two men agreed Hamas needs to stop its attacks on Israel to allow tensions to ease, the White House said.
Obama spoke separately to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, given Egypt’s central role in preserving regional security, the White House said. The two men agreed on the need to de-escalate the conflict as quickly as possible.
Hamas announced a state of emergency in Gaza, evacuating all its security buildings and deploying its troops away from their locations.
Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets on several locations in Gaza early Thursday, warning Gazans to stay away from Hamas members and their facilities.
Israel declared a state of emergency in the country’s south, where more than 1 million Israelis live within rocket range, instructing people to remain close to fortified areas. School was canceled in communities within a 25-mile radius of Gaza.
Batya Katar, a resident of Sderot, a community that has been a frequent target of rocket fire, said streets were empty there.
“People won’t be outside. The minute they assassinated the Hamas military chief we knew an offensive had begun. We were waiting for it, and it’s about time they did it. We have the right to live like other countries in the world,” she said.
The IDF said it destroyed dozens of the militants’ most potent rockets – the Iranian-made Fajr, which is capable of striking Israel’s Tel Aviv heartland – as well as shorter-range rockets. In all, the military estimated Hamas had 10,000 rockets and mortars in its arsenal before the military operation began.
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing control of the territory five years ago in a bloody battle with the Palestinian faction Fatah, has also drawn criticism that it was going soft as it focused its efforts on building its government instead of battling Israel. Hamas, formed a quarter of a century ago as a resistance movement committed to Israel’s destruction, has killed hundreds of Israelis in terror attacks over the years.
Several Muslim nations condemned Israel for its operation to stop the rockets but not Hamas for firing them.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul “strongly” condemned Israel and criticized Washington for supporting Israel. Iran, a major backer of Hamas, called the Israeli operation “organized terrorism.”
The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt called on Egyptians to join them in country-wide protests Friday to announce “their wrath and condemnation of the Israeli attacks,” a statement on the Muslim Brotherhood’s website said.
Egypt President Mohamed Morsi, who belong’s to the Bortherhood’s political party, said he was sending his prime minister to Gaza on Friday.
“Israel must know that Egypt before the revolution is not the same as Egypt after the revolution,” said Mohamed El Mekkawi of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political wing. “Egypt has changed and we have to emphasize our citizens’ demands.”
Tunisia’s ruling party Ennahda condemned “Zionist savage crimes” and is also calling for Friday protests and a day of solidarity with Palestine.