Israelis and Palestinians alike braced for an escalation of the Gaza conflict, and a possible land invasion, Thursday night as rockets and missiles flew from both sides.
Separated by just a few miles, they scurried for cover from attacks, The Wall Street Journal reported. Few pedestrians could be seen on the streets of Gaza City, where the skyline was smeared by plumes of smoke rising from bombed buildings from the day's Israeli barrage.
The fighting revived memories of the Israeli-Gaza war four years ago, which left 1,400 Palestinians in the Strip dead and wrecked infrastructure. But there was hope that Egypt's new Islamist government, ideologically allied to Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, would take a more forceful stand to prevent such a repeat, an operation Israel dubbed Cast Lead.
Egyptian Prime Minster Hisham Kandil was to visit Gaza Friday in a show of support – and perhaps to force a letup in the assault, since Israel promised he would come to no harm.
Palestinian sources told Israel’s Ynet News that shortly after 11 p.m. local time Israeli aircraft attacked a structure in the north Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. Three people, including a child, were killed in the strike, the sources said. The Palestinian news agency Ma'an said at least six others were wounded in the bombing.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said more than 320 targets in Gaza have been struck since it launched what it calls Operation Pillar of Defense on Wednesday. The U.S.-supplied Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted 130 rockets from Gaza, but some 300 rockets and mortars landed in Israeli territory, it said.
Late Thursday, Israel signaled a ground operation may be imminent as forces moved toward the border area with Gaza, the Associated Press reported. At least 12 trucks were seen transporting tanks and armored personnel carriers, and a number of buses carrying soldiers arrived. Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he had authorized the army to call up additional reservists for possible action. The army said it was prepared to draft up to 30,000 additional troops.
Two rockets from Gaza crashed near Tel Aviv Thursday in the first such attack on Israel's largest city since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. One fell into the Mediterranean and the other in an uninhabited part of one of a southern suburb, Reuters reported.
Two days of Israeli air strikes have killed at least 19 Palestinians, including seven militants and 12 civilians, among them six children and a pregnant woman. A Hamas rocket killed three Israelis in the southern town of Kiryat Malachi on Thursday morning.
"We didn't expect it to land in a home. It usually lands in the open area," Gadi Mamo, a stunned neighbor in Kiryat Malachi who felt the ground shake and heard the whistling of the missile, told the Journal.
Next to the building hung a poster that read, "Jewish blood is not forsaken; Conquer Gaza."
Another neighbor, Michael Vaisman, said rocket fire hadn't stopped in the seven years since Israel's pullout from Gaza. "The army should do what's ever necessary—and reoccupy if needed—to destroy all of Hamas's abilities," he said. No Israeli officials are calling for such a drastic move.
Israel mobilized tens of thousands of reservists Thursday and moved forces closer to the Gaza border. It was unclear whether the moves were designed to intimidate Israel's foes or to lay the groundwork for an invasion. Israel's leaders have said they are ready to launch a ground assault if rocket fire continues.
"The situation has all the elements and dynamics that could lead us down the road to a place we haven't been before," Steve Cook, a Mideast specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Journal. "It's a very dangerous situation, and it's difficult to say what the Israelis should do."
The latest upsurge in a long-running conflict came on Wednesday when Israel killed Hamas's military mastermind, Ahmed Al-Jaabari, in a precision air strike on his car. Israel then began shelling the coastal enclave from land, air and sea.
Egypt's new Islamist President, Mohamed Morsi, viewed by Hamas as a protector, led a chorus of denunciation of the Israeli strikes by allies of the Palestinians. Hamas is the Palestinian branch of Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood.
“We don't accept the continuation of this threat and aggression against the people of Gaza," Morsi said in comments at a Cabinet meeting aired on state TV. "The Israelis must realize that we don't accept this aggression and that it can only lead to instability in the region."
Morsi also said he spoke before dawn Thursday with President Barack Obama on stopping the assault and on how "peace and security could be achieved for everyone without aggression."
The U.S. State Department said it is in touch with both Israeli and Egyptian leaders to defuse the crisis.
"I'm not going to speculate on where this might go, beyond saying that we all want to see a de-escalation of the violence and that the onus rests squarely on Hamas," said spokesman Mark Toner. "It needs to stop its rocket attacks."
Morsi's prime minister, Kandil, is to visit Gaza on Friday with other Egyptian officials in a show of support for the enclave, an Egyptian cabinet official said. Israel promised that the delegation would come to no harm.
An Egyptian government source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters officials accompanying Kandil would explore the possibility of brokering a ceasefire.
Morsi faces domestic pressure to act tough. But Egypt gets $1.3 billion a year in U.S. military aid and looks to Washington for help with its ailing economy, constraining Morsi despite his need to show Egyptians that his policies differ from those of his U.S.-backed predecessor Hosni Mubarak.
“This time we know that this is a new Egypt—a new Arab world," Haidar Eid, an associate professor of political science at Al Aqsa University in the Gaza Strip, told the Journal. "We are expecting the Arab world to do something."
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