BRINK OF WAR: Israel, Hamas Battle

Nov. 15, 2012: A rocket launched by Palestinian militants towards Israel makes its way from the northern Gaza Strip, seen from the Israel Gaza Border, southern Israel. (AP)

More deaths reported as Israeli military, Gaza militants trade fire

JERUSALEM –  ( Gaza militants, reeling from  an Israeli military operation, killed three Israelis on Thursday in a rocket  attack that is likely to exact a harsh retaliation by Israel.

The casualties were the first since Israel launched its operation on  Wednesday with the assassination of Hamas’ top military commander.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said two Israeli men and a woman died after  a rocket struck their four-story apartment building in the southern Israeli town  of Kiryat Malachi. A 4-year-old boy was seriously wounded in and two babies  lightly wounded in the strike.

Since the Israeli operation started, a total of 13 Palestinians, including  four civilians, have been killed and more than 100 people wounded, according to  Palestinian medical officials. Among the dead were two children.

Israelis and Gazans both holed up in their homes Thursday in anticipation of  heavy fighting on the second day of the military’s campaign.

Israeli aircraft, tanks and naval gunboats pounded the Hamas-ruled coastal  strip and rocket salvoes thudded into southern Israel.

The operation, launched after days of rocket fire from the coastal territory,  was Israel’s most intense attack on Gaza since its full-scale war there four  years ago.

The Israeli military said the some 20 airstrikes were part of a major  offensive dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense,” according to a Reuters  report.

Israeli officials said Wednesday that a ground invasion was a strong  possibility in the coming days if Hamas didn’t rein in the rocket fire.  Mid-morning Thursday, there was no sign such an invasion might be beginning. But  the Israeli military was cleared to call up special reserve units — a sign the  operation might broaden.

“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.”

Gaza schools were ordered closed until the operation ends, and most of the  territory’s 1.6 million people hunkered down close to home, venturing out only  to buy food, fuel and other basic supplies.

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, other militants and their  facilities.

The Israeli military said Hamas fighters and other militant factions,  undeterred by the air attacks, bombarded southern Israel with more than 130  rockets after the operation began. Israel’s newly deployed Iron Dome missile  defense system, developed as a response to the short-range rockets from Gaza,  intercepted two dozen of them, military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich  said.

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.

People living in areas along the frontier were ordered to stay home from  work, save for essential services, and shopping centers were closed. Israeli  police stepped up patrols around the country, fearing Hamas could retaliate with  bombing attacks far from the reaches 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.”

Many Gazans 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.

“My little 4-year-old boy keeps asking me to pray with him every 10 minutes,  saying, ‘Mama. Let’s pray together to Allah in order to be safe,’” one woman,  Ghadeer Ahmad, wrote on her Facebook account.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas cut short a trip to Europe to deal with the  crisis surrounding Israel’s military operation, according to Saeb Erekat,  an aide to Abbas.

Erekat harshly condemned Israel’s military operation, saying the Palestinians  “hold Israel fully responsible for the consequences of this act of  aggression.”

Few in the Palestinian territory’s largest urban area, Gaza City, came out  following the call for dawn prayers on Thursday, and the only vehicles plying  the streets were ambulances and media cars.

About 400 angry mourners braved the streets, however, to bury Hamas  mastermind Ahmed Jabari, whose body was draped in the green flag of the Islamic  militant Hamas movement. Some fired guns in the air and chanted, “God is Great,  the revenge is coming.”

When the body was brought into a mosque for funeral prayers, some tried to  touch or kiss it. Others cried. Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to be  killed since the last war in Gaza ended in early 2009. He has long topped  Israel’s most-wanted list, blamed for a string of deadly attacks, including the  kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006.

The Israeli military said its aircraft targeted more than 20 facilities that  served as storage or launching sites for rockets. Among the weapons destroyed  were rockets that could hit as far as 25 miles into Israel.

In a nationwide address Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said  Israel could no longer stand repeated attacks on its southern towns.

“If there is a need, the military is prepared to expand the operation. We  will continue to do everything to protect our citizens,” Netanyahu declared late  Wednesday.

The conflict has deepened the instability gripping the Middle East. Cairo  recalled its ambassador in response to the military operation, which began just  days after Israel was drawn into Syria’s civil war for the first time.

In a statement read on state TV late Wednesday, spokesman Yasser Ali said  that President Mohammed Morsi recalled the ambassador and asked the Arab  League’s Secretary General to convene an emergency ministerial meeting in the  wake of the Gaza violence.

Israel and Egypt signed a peace accord in 1979. Relations, never warm, have  deteriorated since longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in a  popular uprising last year.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr spoke with U.S. Secretary of  State Hillary Rodham Clinton late Wednesday, asking for “immediate U.S.  intervention to stop the Israeli aggression,” the ministry said in a  statement.

Amr told Clinton that if Israel’s offensive does not stop, “matters will  escalate out of control” and asked the U.S. “to use what contacts it has with  Israel.”

In Washington, the United States lined up behind Israel. “We support Israel’s  right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort  to avoid civilian casualties,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.

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 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.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for calm and urged both sides to  respect international humanitarian law.

On Wednesday night, the U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors to  consider an Egyptian request for an emergency meeting on Israel’s military  action in Gaza. The Palestinians asked the council to act to stop the  operation.

For the past four years, Israel and Hamas have largely observed an informal  truce. But in recent weeks, the calm has unraveled in a bout of rocket attacks  from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. From Israel’s perspective, Hamas  escalated the situation with two specific attacks in recent days: an explosion  in a tunnel along the Israeli border and a missile attack on an Israeli military  jeep that seriously wounded four soldiers.

Plumes of black smoke wafted into Gaza City’s skies following at least five  airstrikes there. Sirens blared as people ran in panic in the streets and  militants fired angrily into the air. Hamas police cordoned off the area around  a hospital where at least one body from the strike was taken. It was draped in a  white sheet, with a burnt leg poking out.

Outside the hospital where Jabari’s body was taken, Hamas official Khalil  al-Haya eulogized the commander and threatened Israel.

“The battle between us and the occupation is open and it will end only with  the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem,” he said.

Thousands of angry Gazans chanted “Retaliation” and “We want you to hit Tel  Aviv tonight.”

Witnesses said Jabari was traveling in a vehicle in Gaza City when the car  exploded. Crowds of people and security personnel rushed to the scene of the  strike, trying to put out the fire that had engulfed the car and left it a  charred shell. The Israeli military released a grainy, black-and-white video of  the airstrike. It shows a sedan moving slowly along a road before exploding in a  powerful blast that sent a large piece of the car flying into the air.

Dovish Israeli lawmaker Dov Hanin condemned the killing.

“Assassinating leaders is never the solution. In place of the leaders killed,  other will grow, and we will only get another cycle of fire and blood,” he  said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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