Israeli prime minister says Israel is prepared for 'significant' widening of Gaza operation as bombardment enters fifth day
© RONEN ZVULUN/Reuters
Israeli soldiers prepare for mass murder near the Gaza Strip, November 16, 2012.
The Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu
, has said it is prepared for a "significant" widening of its Gaza
offensive as the bombardment entered its fifth day.
The Palestinian death toll since the conflict began on Wednesday topped 50 after a night of sustained bombing that killed seven civilians, including five children, according to a Gaza health official. Two children died and 12 people were injured when two houses were hit in northern Gaza.
Shells fired from Israeli gunboats off the coast pummelled Gaza for an hour in the middle of the night, causing massive explosions, and six people were injured when two Israeli war planes hit media buildings
in Gaza City.
Netanyahu told the Israeli cabinet in remarks broadcast on Sunday: "We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the terrorist organisations and the Israel
Defence Forces are prepared for a significant expansion of the operation."
There appeared to be a lull in rocket fire out of Gaza overnight, but air raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv and Ashdod on Sunday morning. Israel's Channel 2 reported that rocket fire aimed at Tel Aviv was intercepted by an Iron Dome defence battery. One rocket damaged a home in the southern city of Ashkelon.
Three Israeli civilians have been killed and more than 50 wounded since Wednesday.
In all, 57 Palestinians have been killed, including 24 civilians, and more than 400 civilians have been wounded, medics say. New strikes on Sunday levelled homes in Gaza, burying residents under the rubble as rescuers frantically dug for survivors.
Gaza is braced for a ground invasion by Israeli forces
following intensified bombing that included the flattening of the headquarters of the Hamas leader, Ismail Haniyeh. A small mountain of rubble, twisted metal and broken glass was all that remained of Haniyeh's headquarters. Palestinian flags fluttered on poles poking out from the debris.
Israel's chief military spokesman, Brigadier General Yoav Mordechai, said the military had been ordered to go after Hamas commanders in "more targeted, more surgical and more deadly" attacks. "I imagine in the next few hours, we will see ongoing targeted attacks on gunmen and Hamas commanders," he told Israeli army radio.
A strike in Gaza City on Sunday flattened the home of a family known for its support for Hamas, killing three women and a fourth civilian, according to Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra.
Another strike in the city brought down a home near a Hamas police station. Rescue workers pulled out the body of a dead woman, along with several surviving members of her family.
In the Shati refugee camp, a missile struck the car of a Hamas militant outside his home, killing him and an 11-year-old girl passing by at the time, al-Kidra said.
Israel has meanwhile opened the Kerem Shalom crossing to allow medical and humanitarian supplies into Gaza.
As the Israeli military began the emergency call-up of up to 75,000 reservists, leaders from Turkey, Egypt and Qatar met in Cairo to discuss ways of ending the escalating violence. Israel has said it is not prepared to enter into a truce without guarantees the rocket fire won't resume.
The US urged diplomacy and "de-escalation" but said Israel had the right to self-defence. "Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory," Barack Obama said at the start of a three-nation tour in Asia. "If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that's preferable."
The foreign secretary, William Hague, said the UK believes Hamas that "bears principal responsibility for starting all of this" as he called on it to stop the rocket attacks but warned Israel risks losing international sympathy if it launches a ground invasion.
"The prime minister and I have both stressed to our Israeli counterparts that a ground invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy they have in this situation," he told Sky News
Israel's hardline foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, denied Israel had launched an all-out war.
"The only way we can achieve peace and security is to create real deterrence via a crushing response that will make sure they don't try to test us again," he said. "This isn't an all-out war but an operation with defined goals." If a ground invasion were authorised Israel would have to "see it through," he said. "This wasn't done during Operation Cast Lead [the 22-day war four years ago], which is why we failed to achieve our goal."
On a visit to Gaza on Saturday, the Tunisian foreign minister, Rafik Abdesslem, denounced the Israeli attacks as unacceptable and against international law.
"Israel should understand that many things have changed and that lots of water has run in the Arab river," he said. "It should realise it no longer has a free hand. It does not have total immunity and is not above international law ... What Israel is doing is not legitimate and is not acceptable at all."
Regional leaders, along with Hamas's Khaled Mashaal and Ramadan Shallah, the Islamic Jihad secretary general, are meeting in Cairo to discuss ways of containing the crisis. Others at the gathering included the Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the Qatari emir.
"There are some indications that there is a possibility of a ceasefire soon, but we do not yet have firm guarantees," Morsi said.
Arab League diplomats briefed on Saturday evening that its statement would be calling for an immediate ceasefire. However, Hamas officials in Gaza said any truce would be dependent on Israel agreeing to lift its long-term blockade of the territory and agree to end its policy of assassinations of Hamas leaders, conditions that Israel is unlikely to accept.
Egypt brokered an informal truce in October, which has since collapsed. An Arab diplomatic source, who declined to be named, told Reuters the Arab League draft to be discussed by the ministers expresses the Cairo-based league's support for Egypt's efforts to achieve a "long-term truce" between Israel and Palestinian factions.
The draft also calls for the UN security council to take the necessary steps to halt the violence and "protect the Palestinian people".