Gaza conflict escalates as 3 Israelis die and rockets reach Tel Aviv

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Hours after three Israelis in southern Israel were killed by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, a rocket struck the outskirts of Tel Aviv, bringing the conflict between Israel and Hamas to a new intensity.

On Thursday, the Israel Defense Forces reportedly sent ground trips to the border area, raising the possibility that a ground incursion into Gaza may not be far off. A new stage of the Gaza operation reportedly has been approved by the IDF.

The Israeli casualties came when a rocket struck their apartment in the Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi on Thursday morning — one of more than 250 rockets fired from Gaza since Israel’s assassination late Wednesday afternoon of the Hamas military chief in Gaza, Ahmed Jabari. The rocket attack, which also struck a second building in Kiryat Malachi, also seriously injured a baby girl and a 4-year-old boy.

On Thursday evening, rocket warning sirens wailed in Tel Aviv for the first time since the 1991 Gulf War, and up to two rockets reportedly struck Holon, located on the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Tel Aviv at the army’s central location at the time of the attack and went to its bomb shelter.

Earlier in the day, two rockets hit Rishon Lezion, located about 10 miles south of Tel Aviv. Other sites struck by rockets from Gaza included a school in Ofakim, a home in Ashdod, a home in Beersheva and a factory near Ashkelon.

At least 100 incoming rockets have been intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, according to the IDF.

Meanwhile, the Israeli army bombed more than 200 medium- and long-range rocket launch and infrastructure sites throughout Gaza since Wednesday night, according to the IDF spokesman.

“This has significantly damaged the rocket launch capabilities and munitions warehouses operated by Hamas and other terror organizations,” the IDF said in a statement. “The aim of targeting these sites is to impair the rocket launching capability of terror organizations in the Gaza strip and damage their further build-up.”

The Israeli Air Force also bombed several rocket launching squads as they prepared to fire rockets toward southern Israel, according to the IDF. At least 16 Palestinians have been killed and more than 100 injured in the Israeli strikes, the Palestinian Maan news agency reported Thursday.

Israel has mobilized several infantry units and called up reserve troops. The IDF spokesman said the army will ask to call up 30,000 reservists for what the IDF has dubbed Operation Pillar of Defense. Israel last entered Gaza with ground troops during the monthlong war that began in December 2008.

In a statement released Thursday evening, Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, “The general rocket fire, and in particular the rockets at the Gush Dan region [the greater Tel Aviv area], reflect an escalation, and the other side will pay a heavy price for this escalation. I said at the beginning of the operation that there will be trying times, and it will not be an easy endeavor. Today we saw that price in Kiryat Malachi, and our hearts go out to all the families of the victims.

“I am convinced that the operation will achieve its goals. I am confident that we will strengthen our deterrence, and restore the peace, even it takes some time.”

Wednesday’s strike on Hamas’ Jabari followed four days of rocket fire from Gaza terrorist groups on southern Israel. More than 150 rockets reportedly were fired from Gaza during that time, causing damage to homes and factories.

Hamas’ armed wing, the Izz al-Dinn Al-Qassam Brigades, reportedly said in a statement following Jabari’s killing: “The occupation has opened the gates of hell on itself.”

The Israeli daily Haaretz quoted peace activist Gershon Baskin as saying that hours before he was assassinated, Jabari had received a draft of a permanent truce agreement with Israel and that senior Israeli officials were aware of the draft.

On Thursday morning, the United Nations Security Council held an emergency meeting on Israel’s ramped-up Gaza operation at the request of Egypt, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. The envoys of Israel and the Palestinians offered presentations at the meeting. The Security Council failed to endorse a plan of action, agreeing only to issue a statement saying that the emergency meeting took place.

“We have demonstrated maximum restraint for years, but the Israeli government has a right and a duty to respond to these attacks,” Israeli U.N. envoy Ron Prosor told the council. “Israel will not play Russian roulette with the lives of our citizens.”

Palestinian envoy Riyad Mansour referred to “Israel’s malicious onslaught, using the most lethal military means and illegal measures against the defenseless Palestinian civilian population.”

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, defended Israel’s right to defend itself. On Wednesday night, President Obama called Netanyahu and voiced similar support while urging Netanyahu to avoid civilian casualties.

On Wednesday, Egypt recalled its ambassador to Israel in protest over the Gaza strikes. Israel’s ambassador to Cairo, Yaakov Amitai, also was called back to Jerusalem out of fear for his safety in the face of expected protests. The embassy staff was evacuated Wednesday. In the summer of 2011, a Cairo crowd broke into the embassy, threatening the lives of those inside before they were evacuated.

Israel’s Security Cabinet on Wednesday night authorized the IDF to “continue vigorous action against the terrorist infrastructures operating from the Gaza Strip against the civilian population in Israel in order to bring about an improvement in the security reality and allow a normal life for the residents of the State of Israel.”

“Alongside the military effort, Israel will, to the best of its ability, work to avoid harming civilians while honoring the humanitarian needs of the population, in keeping with the rules of international law,” the directive said.

In a statement issued Thursday to the foreign press, Netanyahu said that world leaders have an understanding of Israel’s need and right to defend itself.

“There is no moral symmetry; there is no moral equivalence, between Israel and the terrorist organizations in Gaza,” Netanyahu said. “The terrorists are committing a double war crime. They fire at Israeli civilians and they hide behind Palestinian civilians. And by contrast, Israel takes every measure to avoid civilian casualties.

“I saw today a picture of a bleeding Israeli baby. This picture says it all: Hamas deliberately targets our children, and they deliberately place their rockets next to their children. Despite this reality, and it’s a very difficult reality, Israel will continue to do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties.”

The name of Israel’s Gaza operation, Pillar of Defense, refers to the protective cloud the Bible says followed the Israelites in the desert.