Palestinian rockets aimed at Jerusalem
By Karin Laub and Josef Federman
Hamas rocket squads aimed at Jerusalem for the first time yesterday, along with commercial hub Tel Aviv, showing off their expanded reach with what they said were Gaza-made projectiles that have never been fired before. Israel called up 16,000 reservists, moving a step closer to a possible ground offensive in the Palestinian territory.
Air raid sirens sounded in the two cities which - unlike population centres in Israel's south - had not been exposed to rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza before the current round of cross-border fighting. No injuries were reported, but Hamas' latest attempts to hit Israel's heartland could push Israel closer to sending ground troops into Gaza.
Over the past three days, Israel has relentlessly pounded suspected rocket launching sites and other Hamas targets in Gaza with scores of airstrikes, while Hamas has fired more than 450 rockets toward Israel.
Hamas was badly bruised during its last full-fledged confrontation with Israel four years ago, but appeared better prepared this time with a more powerful arsenal.
Just a few years ago, Palestinian rockets were limited to crude, homemade devices manufactured in Gaza. But in recent years, Hamas and other armed groups have smuggled in sophisticated, longer-range rockets from Iran and Libya, which has been flush with weapons since Moammar Gadhafi was ousted last year.
Most of the rockets do not have guided systems, limiting their accuracy, though Israeli officials believe the militants may have a small number of guided missiles that have not yet been deployed.
Hamas said the two rockets aimed at the two Israeli cities yesterday were made in Gaza, a prototype the militants call M-75, and have a range of about 80 kilometres.
The air raid sirens sounded in Jerusalem after the start of the Jewish Sabbath in the holy city, claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as a capital and located about 75 kilometres from Gaza. Israeli police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the rocket landed in an open area southeast of the city.
Earlier yesterday, Gaza militants fired toward Tel Aviv and an explosion was heard in the city, but no injuries were reported. Hamas had first targeted Tel Aviv on Thursday, an unprecedented achievement for the group.
"We are sending a short and simple message: There is no security for any Zionist on any single inch of Palestine and we plan more surprises," Abu Obeida, spokesman for the Hamas militant wing, said of the rockets aimed at Israel's two main cities.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said no decision has been made yet on a ground offensive but all options are on the table. Dozens of armoured vehicles have been moved to Israel's border with Gaza since fighting intensified Wednesday, following Israel's assassination of the Hamas military chief.
She said 16,000 reserve soldiers were called up yesterday, and the army could draft an additional 14,000 soldiers. She did not say where the reservists were being deployed.
The violence has widened the instability gripping the region, straining already frayed Israel-Egypt relations. The Islamist government in Cairo, like Hamas linked to the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, recalled its ambassador in protest and dispatched Prime Minister Hesham Kandil to show solidarity with Gaza.
Kandil called for an end to the offensive while touring Gaza City's Shifa Hospital with the territory's prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, who was making his first public appearance since the fighting began.
In one chaotic moment, a man rushed toward the two leaders, shouting as he held up the body of a 4-year-old boy. The two prime ministers cradled the lifeless boy who Hamas said was killed in an Israeli airstrike - a claim Israel denied.
Fighting to hold back tears, Kandil told reporters that the Israeli operation must end.
"What I saw today in the hospital, the wounded and the martyrs, the boy ... whose blood is still on my hands and clothes, is something that we cannot keep silent about," he said.
Israel said it halted its incessant air attacks on militant targets in Gaza during Kandil's visit, though Hamas security claimed three airstrikes hit the territory during that period.
Militants, meanwhile, fired off more than 60 rockets after Kandil arrived in Gaza. The pace of cross-border fighting quickly resumed after the Egyptian leader's departure.
In Egypt's two largest cities, Cairo and Alexandria, thousands protested the Israeli offensive yesterday in marches organised by Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood. Protesters waved Palestinian flags and chanted slogans against Israel. In Cairo's Tahrir Square, a few hundred protesters burned an Israeli flag.
Prominent Brotherhood figures took part, many brandishing the chequered Palestinian scarf, or keffiyeh, during the marches.
Small anti-Israeli demonstrations occurred in east Jerusalem and the West Bank. Police dispersed the crowds with tear gas and stun grenades. And in Iran, a close Hamas ally, thousands of people took to the streets in the capital Tehran. The demonstrators carried banners denouncing Israel. They chanted "Death to the US" and "Death to Israel."
In Europe, reaction was mixed. Germany held Hamas responsible and urged Egypt to pressure the Islamists to halt the violence, while Britain cautioned Israel against launching a ground offensive.
"When Israel has entered into ground invasions in other conflicts that is when they have lost a good deal of international sympathy and support, and of course civilian casualties become much harder to avoid in that situation," Foreign Minister William Hague told reporters in London.
In the West Bank, the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, announced that UN chief Ban Ki-moon would arrive in the region in the coming days in a bid to reduce tensions. Abbas lost control of Gaza to Hamas five years ago but still claims to represent both Palestinian territories. Israeli officials also confirmed Ban was expected. It was not immediately clear whether Ban would visit Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared determined to move forward. "The Israeli military "continues to strike hard against Hamas and is prepared to expand its action into Gaza," he said.
At least 23 Palestinians, including 12 militants and six children, as well as three Israelis have been killed in the fighting - a relatively low toll compared to the beginning of Israel's previous major offensive against Hamas four years ago. Netanyahu has said the air force is trying to strike surgically and avoid harm to civilians.
The 4-year-old boy whose body had been handed to Kandil and Haniyeh was killed along with a young man earlier yesterday when an Israeli missile struck close to their homes in the town of Jebaliya near Gaza City, relatives said.
The area near the boy's home showed signs that a projectile had exploded there, with shrapnel marks in the walls of surrounding homes and shattered kitchen windows. But neighbours said security officials quickly took what remained of the projectile, making it impossible to verify who fired it.
Kandil's visit came after a night of fierce exchanges.
Overnight, the military said it targeted about 150 rocket-launching sites as well as ammunition warehouses, bringing to 450 the number of sites struck in the three-day operation.
Militants unleashed dozens of rocket barrages overnight, setting off air-raid sirens throughout an area that is home to some 1 million Israelis.
Early yesterday, 85 missiles exploded within 45 minutes in Gaza City, sending black pillars of smoke towering above the coastal strip's largest city. The military said it was targeting underground rocket-launching sites.
One missile flattened sections of the Interior Ministry, which oversees Hamas security forces, leaving a huge pile of rubble. Another hit an uninhabited house belonging to a senior Hamas commander. Those strikes, together with an attack on a generator building near Haniyeh's home, suggested that Israel was expanding its offensive beyond military targets.
Ten-month-old Haneen Tafesh was killed Thursday when flying shrapnel from an air attack on a field next to her family's shack struck her in the head.
"What did she do? Did she fire any rockets?" her 23-year-old father, Khaled Tafesh, asked as he waited outside the Shifa hospital morgue, waiting for the funeral of his only child to begin.
Israel and Hamas had largely observed an informal truce since a devastating Israeli incursion into Gaza four years ago, but rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes on militant operations continued sporadically.