GAZA CITY: Israel’s air force obliterated symbols of Hamas power on the third day of its overwhelming Gaza assault Monday, striking a house next to the Hamas premier’s home, devastating a security compound and flattening a five-story building at a university closely linked to the Islamic group.
The three-day death toll rose to 315, including seven children under the age of 15 who were killed in two separate strikes late Sunday and Monday, medics said. Israel launched its campaign, the deadliest against Palestinians in decades, on Saturday in retaliation for rocket fire targeting southern Israeli towns.
The strikes appear to have gravely damaged Hamas’ ability to launch rockets, but one medium-range rocket fired at the Israeli city of Ashkelon killed a man there Monday and wounded several others. It was the second fatality in Israel since the beginning of the offensive, and the first person ever to be killed by a rocket in Ashkelon, a city of 120,000.
On Sunday, Hamas missiles struck for the first time near the city of Ashdod, twice as far from Gaza as Ashkelon and only 40 km from Israel’s heart in Tel Aviv.
At first light Monday, strong winds blew black smoke from the bombed sites in Gaza City over deserted streets. The air hummed with the buzz of pilotless drones and the roar of jets, punctuated by the explosions of new airstrikes.
Most of those killed since Saturday were members of Hamas security forces, though the precise numbers remain unclear. The UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees said at least 51 of the dead were civilians. A rise in civilian casualties could intensify international pressure on Israel to abort the offensive.
Israel s intense bombings – more than 300 air strikes since midday Saturday – wreaked unprecedented destruction in Gaza, reducing buildings to rubble.
One strike destroyed a five-story building in the women s wing at Islamic University, one of the most prominent Hamas symbols. Another attack ravaged a compound controlled by Preventive Security, one of the group s chief security arms, and a third destroyed a house next to the residence of Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister. Like other Hamas leaders, Haniyeh is in hiding.
Late Sunday, Israeli aircraft attacked a building in the Jebaliya refugee camp next to Gaza City, killing a woman, a toddler and three young teenage girls, Gaza Health Ministry official Dr Moaiya Hassanain said.
In the southern town of Rafah, a toddler and his two teenage brothers were killed in an air strike aimed at a Hamas commander, Hassanain said. In Gaza City, another attack killed a man and his wife.
Shlomo Brom, a former senior Israeli military official, said it was the deadliest force ever used in decades of Israeli-Palestinian fighting.
In the most dramatic attacks Sunday, warplanes struck dozens of smuggling tunnels under the Gaza-Egypt border, cutting off a lifeline that had supplied Hamas with weapons and Gaza with commercial goods. The influx of goods helped Hamas defy an 18-month blockade of Gaza by Israel and Egypt.
Gaza s nine hospitals were overwhelmed. Hassanain, who keeps a record for the Gaza Health Ministry, said over 1,400 were wounded over two days of fighting, and that casualties were now being taken to private clinics and even homes.
Abdel Hafez, a 55-year-old history teacher, waited outside a Gaza City bakery to buy bread, one of the few people visible outdoors. He said he was not a Hamas supporter, but believed the strikes would only increase support for the group. Each strike, each drop of blood are giving Hamas more fuel to continue, he said.
In Jerusalem, Israel s Cabinet approved a call-up of 6,500 reserve soldiers Sunday in apparent preparation for a ground offensive. The final decision to call up more reserves has yet to be made by the defense minister, Ehud Barak, and the Cabinet decision could be a pressure tactic.
Israel has doubled the number of troops on the Gaza border since Saturday and also deployed an artillery battery. Several hundred reservists have already been summoned to join their units, but no full combat formations have been mobilized so far.
Israeli leaders have said the operation might be long. The goal of our current operation is to … create a situation where Israeli civilians living in the south of the country no longer have to live in constant fear of a Hamas rocket attack, government spokesman Mark Regev said Monday.
Since Israel s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year military occupation, Israeli forces have repeatedly returned to the territory to hunt insurgents firing rockets at Israeli towns. But it has shied away from retaking the entire strip for fear of getting bogged down in urban warfare.
Military experts said Israel would need at least 10,000 soldiers for a full-scale invasion.
The assault has sparked diplomatic fallout. Syria decided to suspend indirect peace talks with Israel, begun earlier this year. The UN Security Council called on both sides to halt the fighting and asked Israel to allow humanitarian supplies into Gaza. Raed Fattouh, a Gaza border official, said Israel informed him that two key crossings would be open Monday to allow in fuel and aid supplies.
The prime minister of Turkey, one of the few Muslim countries to have relations with Israel, called the air assault a crime against humanity, and French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the provocations that led to this situation as well as the disproportionate use of force.
The carnage inflamed Arab and Muslim public opinion, setting off street protests in Arab communities in Israel and the West Bank, across the Arab world, and in some European cities.
Some of the protests turned violent. Israeli troops quelling a West Bank march Sunday killed one Palestinian and seriously wounded another.
On Monday, a Palestinian stabbed and wounded four Israelis in a West Bank settlement before he was shot and wounded. It was not immediately clear if the attack was directly connected to the events in Gaza. -Matti Friedman reported from Jerusalem.