Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip have killed scores of people including seven women and children, medics said, on the third deadly day of a widening military operation against the Palestinian enclave.
The first strike hit a coffee shop in the city of Khan Yunis, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told AFP, adding that six men were killed and at least 15 other people wounded.
The second hit the Nusseirat refugee camp in central Gaza, killing one and wounding several others, Qudra said.
Further strikes on two houses in Khan Yunis killed seven people – three women and four children, he said.
Dozens of strikes were heard slamming into the besieged Palestinian territory in the early hours of Thursday, as Israel’s Operation Protective Edge, the largest military campaign to target Gaza since an eight-day battle in 2012, entered day three.
On Wednesday, 29 Palestinians were killed, and Tuesday’s toll stood at 21, bringing the total number of dead to 64.
The dead include at least 10 women and 18 children, according to an AFP count based on medical reports.
Israel says gunmen have fired more than 200 rockets across the border during the campaign, striking deep into the country’s heartland.
The rockets have caused no serious casualties, but the barrages have paralysed business in southern communities, with hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for shelter.
Diplomacy kicks in
In the first indication that any ceasefire efforts were underway, the office of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi said on Wednesday he was contact “with all active and concerned parties” to end the fighting.
The office said the two sides discussed the “critical conditions and the need to stop all military action, and to stop the slide” toward more violence. It called on Israel to protect Palestinian civilians.
Egypt has mediated before between Israel and the Hamas militant group, although the most recent negotiation, in 2012, took place during the tenure of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has since been ousted by the military.
US Secretary of State John Kerry was also in touch with Israel on Wednesday to try to lower tensions.
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon meanwhile warned of a “deteriorating situation … which could quickly get beyond anyone’s control”.
Israel seemed determined to continue its operation, saying it had hit more than 300 targets and Hamas positions throughout Gaza, including rocket-launchers, weapons-storage sites and tunnels that it said the group uses to carry out attacks.
“Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing toward Israeli citizens,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “The operation will expand and continue until the fire toward our towns stops and quiet returns.”
Israel began the offensive Tuesday in response to weeks of rocket launches, and officials said the airstrikes would continue until the firing stops.
Thousands of Israeli troops massed near the Gaza border, the possibility of a ground invasion grew larger – along with the risk of heavier casualties on both sides.
“Despite the fact it will be hard, complicated and costly, we will have to take over Gaza temporarily, for a few weeks, to cut off the strengthening of this terror army,” Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence minister, told Israel Radio. “If you ask my humble opinion, a significant operation like this is approaching.”
The government has authorised the army to activate up to 40,000 reservists, and Israeli TV stations said about a quarter of those forces had been called up, signalling a decision on a ground invasion could still be days away.
Potential ground offensive risky
A ground offensive in Gaza would be a risky gamble for Israel. It could lead to heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side and trigger strong international criticism, as was the case during one that killed hundreds of Palestinians in 2009. Israeli troops would also be at much greater risk if they enter Gaza’s crowded urban landscape, home to 1.8 million people, especially for a long-term presence.
Tal Russo, a former general who retired last year as head of Israel’s southern command, said a ground offensive did not guarantee success. “There is no such concept as ‘decisive,’ and that needs to be understood,” he told Channel 10 TV.
Israeli security officials say they have prepared different scenarios inside Gaza, ranging from a quick pinpoint operation to a full re-occupation of the coastal strip. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.
Tensions have been rising since the June 12 kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank. Israel accused Hamas of being behind the abductions but provided no proof.
Israel then cracked down on the group’s members in the West Bank and arrested hundreds of people. Hamas, which controls Gaza, responded by stepping up rocket fire.
The situation deteriorated last week after the bodies of the three were found, followed a day later by the abduction in Jerusalem of a Palestinian teenager who was found burned to death in what Palestinians believe was a revenge attack. Six Jewish Israelis were arrested in the killing.
Adding to the tension, a 15-year-old Palestinian-American cousin of the slain teenager was beaten by Israeli police at a protest. Israel’s Justice Ministry said one of the officers would face criminal charges.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, AFP, REUTERS)