JERUSALEM — Israeli jets and drones hit dozens of targets overnight in an intense air campaign against militant targets in the Gaza Strip the day after a missile strike killed the Hamas military chief in an operation that raised the specter of an all-out conflict.
Israeli officials said Wednesday’s attacks were aimed at crippling the military capabilities of Gaza-based militants who fire rockets into southern Israel and warned that it could evolve into a ground operation.
But the barrage of rockets fired from Gaza continued unabated. Three Israelis were killed early Thursday when a rocket struck an apartment building in Kiryat Malakhi in southern Israel, Israeli police said.
A spokesman for the Hamas-run Health Ministry in Gaza, Ashraf al-Qedra, said eight Palestinians had been killed, including two children and four other civilians.
Residents in Gaza said militants have begun firing rockets at Israeli targets from inside teeming Gaza city, making direct Israeli strikes on the populous city likely.
“We are at the start of the event and not at its end,” said Defense Minister Ehud Barak, pledging to do “whatever is necessary to restore quiet to the south.”
Representatives of Hamas, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, said they also have no intention of backing down. The assassination of Ahmed al-Jabari, the Hamas military commander, “is a serious crime, and they crossed the red line,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman. “It’s time to declare war.”
Egypt’s Islamist-led government also condemned Jabari’s assassination, and announced the withdrawal of its ambassador to Israel.
Israeli officials ordered all residents living within 25 miles of the Gaza Strip to stay indoors, in shelters or in safe rooms. Israel also dropped leaflets overnight into Gaza warning residents to “stay away from Hamas and other terror organizations, operatives and facilities that pose a risk to their safety.”
Israeli jets and drones hit dozens of targets throughout the Mediterranean enclave early Thursday, including munitions warehouses and residential buildings that the military said operated as warehouses. The military said it targeted more than 100 long- and medium- range rocket launching sites and several launch squads overnight, doing “significant” damage to stockpiles that include Iran-supplied Fajr-5 missiles.
If drawn out, the Israeli campaign could paralyze the crowded Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, trigger barrages of retaliatory attacks from the organization and its regional allies, and upend already cool relations between Israel and Egypt.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the situation with President Obama and Vice President Biden on Wednesday evening. Obama also spoke to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.
In a statement, a State Department spokesman reiterated U.S. support for “Israel’s right to defend itself.” The spokesman, Mark Toner, also condemned the recent rocket fire from Gaza and expressed regret for “the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence.”
U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice briefed the U.N. Security Council on Obama’s efforts to avert a full-scale war.
“Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that does nothing but set back the Palestinian cause,” Rice said. “Attacking Israel on a near-daily basis does nothing to help Palestinians in Gaza nor to move the Palestinian people any closer to achieving self-determination and independence.”
The latest round of fighting began Saturday, when militants from a non-Hamas faction fired an antitank missile at an Israeli jeep traveling along the Israel-
Gaza border, injuring four Israeli soldiers. Israel responded with shelling and firing that Gaza medical officials said killed at least four people, including two children, and wounded about two dozen others. Militants then fired about 130 rockets and mortar rounds at population centers of southern Israel over several days. After mediation from Egypt, the flare-up appeared to have waned by Tuesday.
But Israeli officials had warned that they might strike hard against Hamas, saying the cyclical rocket barrages against Israeli civilian areas had become intolerable. On Wednesday afternoon, an Israeli missile hit the sedan carrying Jabari in Gaza City.
Jabari, 52, had long topped Israel’s most-wanted list. Israeli military officials said he was behind a string of attacks in Israel and the 2006 capture of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Jabari also helped mediate Shalit’s release in 2011, and he personally escorted the soldier to the Egyptian border crossing where he was freed. Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli army spokeswoman, said Jabari had “a lot of blood on his hands.”
The new offensive, which Israel dubbed “Pillar of Defense,” sparked panic across the Gaza Strip, which Hamas has ruled since seizing power there in 2007. Palestinians rushed to markets to stock up on essentials before seeking shelter; by nightfall, an eerie calm — interrupted by sporadic airstrikes and the drone of jets and helicopters overhead — had settled over the streets.
Palestinians said the strikes evoked the punishing Israeli offensive of 2008-2009, which Israel said was a response to unrelenting rocket attacks. That three-week operation left 13 Israelis and more than 1,000 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, dead.
“This continual hitting and targeting of different places reminds me of the last war,” said Fatheya Darwish, 60, a housewife in central Gaza who said she heard the missile strike on Jabari’s car. “I’m afraid for my kids, grandchildren and everyone who lives in Gaza. Every year, we lose lots of youths. My wish is to live peacefully.”
After meeting Wednesday night, Netanyahu’s security cabinet said in a statement that Israel is doing “its best to avoid harm to civilians.” The military had suggested earlier that Gaza militants would be responsible for civilian casualties because they operate in residential areas.
Until recently, Hamas has mostly adhered to a wobbly cease-fire with Israel. But smaller, allied militant groups, such as Islamic Jihad, have continued to launch rockets into southern Israel, and Israel has long maintained that as the ruling power in Gaza, Hamas is responsible for all attacks emanating from its territory. Hamas, facing increasing internal challenges from other militant factions and hard-liners, has itself recently asserted responsibility for several rocket assaults.
Israeli military officials say Hamas has spent the past two years strengthening its arsenal with help from Iran, a key sponsor, and with Libyan weapons smuggled in through underground tunnels at the Egyptian border.
“Hamas felt that they got enough power to stand face to face with Israel,” Maj. Gen. Dan Harel, a former Israeli deputy military chief of staff, told reporters in a conference call. “They thought we’re not going to retaliate. They were wrong.”
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has been buoyed by that Islamist movement’s rise next door and in other Arab countries, and it has sought to cultivate strong relations with Morsi. Those fortified bonds and the increasing lawlessness in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula have worried Israel, whose relations with Egypt have chilled since the ouster last year of autocrat Hosni Mubarak.
By Wednesday night, the new Gaza offensive appeared to have further fractured Israeli-Egyptian ties, and some analysts speculated that it could prompt Egypt to review its peace treaty with Israel. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, Morsi’s alma mater and often his mouthpiece, accused Israel of seeking to “drag the region toward instability” and warned that Egypt has changed since the regime of Mubarak, who worked with Israel to isolate Gaza.
It remained unclear Wednesday night how long the offensive would last. Analysts in Gaza and Israel said it depended largely on the level of response from Hamas and other Gaza factions.
The fighting is steeped in politics on both sides. Israel is in the midst of a national election campaign, and Israeli commentators said the offensive could strengthen Netanyahu and Barak, who are making security a centerpiece of their campaigns. Several Israeli opposition parties backed the operation, and Labor Party chair Shelly Yachimovich called the Jabari assassination “amazing.”
Israel is also seeking to head off a bid by the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, which rules the West Bank, to upgrade the Palestinians’ status at the U.N. General Assembly to a non-member state. This week, according to Israeli media reports, the Foreign Ministry instructed Israeli ambassadors to warn international governments that Israel could consider canceling all or part of the 1993 Oslo peace accords if the bid succeeds. A leaked internal ministry paper suggested that Israel might also oust Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas if that happened.
On Wednesday, Abbas asked Arab League Secretary General Nabil Elaraby to convene an emergency meeting of the league’s council of ministers. The Egyptian government, acting on behalf of the Palestinians, called for an emergency session of the U.N. Security Council.
Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at al-Azhar University in Gaza, said Hamas “is in a very delicate situation.” It is facing public pressure to retaliate forcefully, he said, but knows that an Israeli ground operation “could cost Hamas its regime.”
Islam Abdul-Karim and Reyham Abdul-Karim in Gaza City, Abigail Hauslohner in Cairo and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.