JERUSALEM — Hostilities between Gaza Strip-based militants and the Israeli military dramatically escalated Thursday as Palestinian rockets slammed ever deeper into Israel and Israeli aircraft pummeled targets across Gaza.
Warning sirens wailed after sundown in the coastal metropolis of Tel Aviv after at least two rockets — among more than 300 rockets and mortar rounds fired from Gaza since the Israeli operation began Wednesday — sailed toward the city and its suburbs, among the farthest ever fired into Israel by militants in the strip. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak warned of exacting a “heavy price,” and the skies over Gaza were soon illuminated by the blasts of what the military said were 70 strikes in 60 minutes
on underground rocket-launching sites.
Militants in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip killed three Israelis on Thursday in a rocket attack likely to deepen a bruising Israeli air, naval and artillery offensive, the most intense assault on the Palestinian territory in four years.
Barak said he had ordered the mobilization of reserve troops for a possible ground operation, and a military spokesman warned of a “very, very intensive night” to come in Gaza. A spokesman for Hamas, an Islamist movement that rules Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States, said the group’s military wing had “surprises” in store and suggested that the arsenal being targeted by Israel was far from crippled.
The conflict comes as Hamas and Israel are seeking new footing in a volatile region that has undergone a metamorphosis — and is still evolving — since the Arab Spring revolutions, which empowered populist strains that largely favor the Palestinian cause. That backdrop is very different from the one against which Israel carried out a punishing three-week assault on Gaza about four years ago. Few analysts expect the ongoing conflict to widen to other countries, but the regional reactions are unpredictable.
Israel, which previously could count on Egyptian autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s help in isolating Hamas, is testing fragile relations with the new Islamist government in Egypt after his ouster last year. The Islamist government is allied with Hamas and is under popular pressure to downgrade relations with the Jewish state. Hamas, after years of being shunned, feels emboldened by burgeoning ties with Egypt and other regional players, such as Qatar, and the group has called on Arab countries to form a united opposition against the Israeli occupation.
As the violence intensified, the death toll on both sides rose. Gaza medical officials said 18 Palestinians there had been killed since the offensive began, including an 8-month-old girl whose house was shelled Thursday afternoon, according to her grandfather.
Two Israeli men and one woman were killed Thursday morning when a rocket slammed into their fourth-story apartment in the working-class city town of Kiryat Malakhi, about 18 miles north of Gaza. The attack left a baby in critical condition, Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
‘Regional calculus changes’
The Israeli operation, which the military says is aimed at stopping regular rocket and mortar fire on Israel, began Wednesday with an airstrike that killed top Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari in Gaza City. Thousands of Gazans turned out Thursday to mourn Jabari, and Hamas’s prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, praised the commander’s “martyrdom” in a televised address.