Nine people were lightly wounded in an airstrike on one house in Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip, according to Ashraf al-Qedra, a spokesman for the Health Ministry in the Palestinian coastal enclave, which is dominated by Hamas, the Islamic militant group.
Hamas’s Al Aksa radio reported that residents received warnings a few minutes before the houses were bombed.
Early Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces announced on Twitter that they had “commenced Operation Protective Edge in Gaza against Hamas in order to stop the terror Israel’s citizens face on a daily basis.”
“We are taking this to another step and indeed we will see another increase — I would say a gradual increase — in the pressure we are putting on Hamas,” Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, told reporters in a conference call. He added that the army was continuing to call up reservists, beyond the 1,500 announced Monday, in preparation for a possible ground invasion.
The Israeli military identified the homes that were hit as belonging to Eyad Sakik, Abdullah Hshash, Samer Abu Daka and Hassan Abdullah. The military described the men as “Hamas operatives” who it said were involved in rocket attacks and other “terror activities.” It described the homes as “activity sites” utilized by the operatives.
Hamas’s military wing said in an emailed statement that the bombing of the houses was “a serious escalation” that “will oblige us to enlarge our attacks deeper into Israel.”
The air campaign comes after three weeks of escalating rocket attacks from Gaza against southern Israel and of Israeli airstrikes on targets it has described as concealed rocket launchers, training sites and weapons manufacturing facilities associated with Hamas and other militant groups.
The hostilities erased an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that ended eight days of fierce cross-border fighting in November 2012. That came after a devastating, three-week military offensive waged by Israel against militant groups in the winter of 2008-9.
This latest round of tensions along Israel’s border with Gaza began with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank on June 12. Israel blamed Hamas for their abduction and conducted a broad clampdown against Hamas’s infrastructure in the West Bank. The three teenagers were later found dead. At around the same time, an Israeli airstrike killed a Palestinian jihadist as he rode a motorcycle in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel said the man had been involved in numerous rocket attacks against Israel. He was also employed as a Hamas police officer.
At first, radical Islamic groups that are not necessarily under Hamas’s control increased the rocket fire against Israel. By Monday, however, Hamas was taking responsibility for the attacks, which put tens of thousands of Israelis on alert and sent them rushing into safe rooms and bomb shelters. More than a dozen rockets crashed into open ground near the large southern city of Beersheba, about 25 miles from Gaza. The Israeli military said its missile defense system had intercepted several rockets over the port city of Ashdod, north of Gaza on the Mediterranean coast, and the southern town of Netivot. One soldier was injured by shrapnel from a rocket near the Gaza border, according to the military.
The Israeli airstrikes also turned more deadly on Sunday and Monday, with Hamas vowing to avenge the deaths of six of its fighters, its heaviest losses in months. Five were apparently killed in a tunnel two days after the Israeli air force struck it. The military said that the tunnel had been intended for use against Israeli forces. When Hamas militants entered the tunnel on Sunday night, it either collapsed or exploded.
Colonel Lerner said that Israel had banned gatherings of more than 300 people and ordered kindergartens, summer camps and schools to close for the day on Tuesday in a 25-mile radius around Gaza. Beyond that area, no restrictions were imposed, although Colonel Lerner said “we are preparing for potential long-range rocket fire,” like the ones that reached near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem during the 2012 battles.
The military estimates that there are some 10,000 rockets, both homemade and imported, in Gaza, “quite a substantial armament with various ranges that can strike the soft underbelly of Israel,” Colonel Lerner said. “That’s part of the reason we are on this mission.”
As for a ground invasion in Gaza, which last happened during Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, Colonel Lerner said, “I don’t see that happening immediately.”
“We don’t expect it to be a short mission on our behalf,” he added. “We’re not bound by time at this point. The mission is to strike Hamas and to curb rockets fired at Israel.”
He added that Israel was “watching to see what the reaction is with Hamas, to see how they respond to our steps.”
Besides the militants’ homes, the targets hit overnight included 18 “concealed rocket launchers,” 10 infrastructure facilities and three “military compounds,” Colonel Lerner said. Three bombs were fired from the sea and the rest from the air, he added. “People will not be able to use civilian infrastructure to hide and carry out their attacks in this situation,” he added.
Asked about the repercussions of carrying out such an operation during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Colonel Lerner said Hamas had created “an unacceptable, unbearable reality” for one million Israelis in the range of the rockets fired Monday and that Gaza residents should understand that “this is the type of Ramadan Hamas has brought on them.”
Ismail Haniya, the Gaza-based deputy chief of the Hamas movement, called early Tuesday for the Palestinians to strengthen internal unity in order to confront the Israeli military offensive.
Hamas recently entered into a reconciliation pact with the more moderate Palestinian Authority leadership based in the West Bank, which has been urging calm. Intended to heal a seven-year split between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the pact has resulted in a new government, but little else, so far.
Mr. Haniya called for an emergency meeting of the temporary leadership body of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group that dominates the Palestinian Authority and signed the pact with Hamas, to discuss the current situation and examine what steps should be taken next.
Two Palestinians armed with a gun, knives and axes stormed a synagogue complex in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of West Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, the Israeli police said, killing four men in the middle of their morning prayers.
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