GAZA CITY — Israel launched a major air assault on the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, bombing hundreds of targets in what Israeli officials said was a bid to halt escalating cross-border attacks from Palestinian militants in the seaside enclave, who fired a new a salvo of more than 150 rockets toward major Israeli cities and the country’s coastal high-tech corridor.
Warning sirens Tuesday night sent Israelis scrambling for bomb shelters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where a police spokesman said three rockets landed in the city’s outskirts. Other rockets struck as far north as Hadera, more than 70 miles north of Gaza. Israel said that its missile-interception systems blocked 29 of the rockets, including two over Tel Aviv, and that no injuries or major damage was reported.
The Israeli military said it carried out airstrikes against more than 150 sites in Gaza, killing five alleged members of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the enclave. Ashraf al-Qidrah, a spokesman for Gaza’s Health Ministry, said early Wednesday that 24 Palestinians had been killed in the Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip and 152 wounded. Gaza health workers say at least five minors are among the dead in the coastal strip. Another four members of Hamas were killed just north of the strip in a raid on an Israeli military base.
The Israeli operation against Hamas in Gaza is the third major assault since 2008, and it came against a backdrop of weeks of rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank — which Israel has blamed on Hamas — and the suspected revenge killing of an Arab youth in East Jerusalem. Since the abduction of the three Israelis last month, mortar rounds and rocket shells have been fired at Israel almost daily from Gaza, including almost 100 on Monday, according to the Israeli military.
In a sign that the cross-border conflict could widen, Israel said Tuesday that it had called up 1,500 reservists and was mobilizing two infantry brigades, artillery, combat bulldozers and tanks along the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground invasion. The Israeli cabinet subsequently approved the call-up of an additional 40,000 army reservists, according to the Defense Ministry.
The operation “won’t end in a day, and it won’t end in two days; it will take time,” Yitzhak Aharonovitch, Israel’s cabinet minister for internal security, told Channel 2 TV.
In Gaza, residents filled mosques for Ramadan prayers, and patriotic songs blared on car radios as Hamas and other militant groups spent the day and night lobbing short- and medium-range Qassam, Grad and Fajr-5 rockets at Israeli territory.
The Israeli military said a small party of Gaza frogmen attempted a raid near the seaside Israeli army base in Zikim, just north of the Gaza border. Hamas asserted responsibility for the incursion and said its fighters used scuba gear to infiltrate Israel. Israeli soldiers who stopped them killed four Hamas militants, who arrived on the beach with grenades and automatic weapons, and one Israeli soldier was wounded in the fight, the Israeli military said.
Hours after Israel launched what it called “Operation Protective Edge,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the army to “take their gloves off” against Hamas and increase attacks on Gaza, according to an account by a senior Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Early Tuesday afternoon, the Israeli military said it had killed Mohammed Shaaban, 24, whom Israeli officials described as an important Hamas operative in Gaza. The car carrying Shaaban was struck by at least two missiles while crossing a busy intersection near the main market in Gaza City, witnesses said.
An hour after the strike, young men were using their fingers to remove bits of flesh and bone that had splattered across shop windows and stucco walls. They collected the remains in plastic bags to return to the victims’ families for burial. Witnesses at the scene said three other passengers were riding in the four-door sedan. They said the car exploded into flames after it was struck.
“We saw one of the passengers beheaded,” said Munair Kitani, who works at a print shop across the street from the site of the attack. “The head flew into the street. The driver lost his arms. The others? It was hard to tell. We tried to count the hands or feet, but it was all mixed together.”
Also among the dead Tuesday were seven people, including three minors, who were killed in an airstrike on the three-story cinder-block house of a Hamas operative in the teeming city of Khan Younis, Hamas officials said. The operative was apparently not among the casualties.
One of the occupants of the house, Sawsan Kawarea, said she received a call from someone who identified himself as “David” from the Israeli military — apparently one of the warnings Israel says it issues to prevent civilian deaths.
“He asked for me by name. He said: ‘You have women and children in the house. Get out. You have five minutes before the rockets come,’ ” Kawarea said in an interview outside the crumbled building.
She ran outside with her children, she said. A first small missile struck the house — what Gazans call an Israeli “warning rocket.” After that strike, a crowd of young men ran into the house and up to the roof, thinking they would either protect the house from another strike or die defying the Israeli bombardment.
A second, much more destructive missile hit the home five minutes later. It leveled the building and sent dazed and panicked people into a small, sandy alley, their faces covered in white dust and blood. Hamas medical officials said more than a dozen people were wounded in the strike.
Ahmed Kawarea said he ran home when he heard about the first rocket. The second missile hit when he was in the stairwell on his way to the roof.
“We are civilians,” he said. “We don’t have anyone who lives in the house who works in the resistance.”
But neighbors suggested that one of the occupants was a member of the military wing of Hamas. Soon after the house was hit, a man pulled a sidearm out of his waistband and scurried into the gutted building, saying he had been sent to retrieve a laptop computer from the debris.
In response to the Israeli strike on the house — one of several targeted Tuesday — Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zohri said: “This strike in Khan Younis against women and children is awful. After this war crime, all Israelis become legitimate targets for the resistance.”
Hamas was not the only militant group firing rockets at Israel, and it was not the only one targeted by retaliatory strikes. A spokesman for the al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, said his group decided to join the assault against Israel on Tuesday by firing 60 rockets in three hours.
The spokesman, known as Abu Ahmed, said Israeli forces were frustrated because they had emptied their “target bank,” meaning that there were fewer sites for their missiles to hit. “So they fire their rockets at the same empty fields over and over again, and they do this to satisfy their own people,” Abu Ahmed said.
He said the targets were fewer because both Islamic Jihad and Hamas had “cleaned house” and bolstered their networks against spies.
“In 2012, Israel hit a huge number of our underground weapons caches,” Abu Ahmed said, referring to the last cross-border war, which ended in an Egyptian-
brokered cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. “But the intelligence war with the Israelis never ends. And our sites are now well hidden.”
Speaking in a suite of offices that were darkened and sweltering in the midday heat because the electricity was down, he said that if the Israeli infantry rolls into Gaza, “it will be a very hard battle for both sides.”
Eglash reported from Jerusalem. Islam Abdul-Kareem in Gaza City contributed to this report.