GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli warplanes rained more than 100 tons of bombs on security sites in Hamas-ruled Gaza on Saturday and early today, killing at least 230 people in one of the Mideast conflict’s bloodiest assaults in decades. The government said the open-ended campaign was aimed at stopping rocket attacks that have traumatized southern Israel.
Most of the casualties were security forces, but Palestinian officials said at least 15 civilians were among the dead. More than 400 people were also wounded.
The assault sparked protests and condemnations throughout the Arab world, and many of Israel’s Western allies urged restraint, though the U.S. blamed Hamas for the fighting.
But there was no end in sight. The first round of strikes began around noon Saturday, followed by successive waves of attacks that continued into the early hours today.
Israel warned it might go after Hamas’ leaders, and militants kept pelting Israel with rockets – killing at least one Israeli and wounding six.
Hundreds of Israeli infantry and armored corps troops headed for the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground invasion, military officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity under army guidelines.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said late Saturday that the goal was “to bring about a fundamental improvement in the security situation.” He added, “It could take some time.”
The Israeli airstrikes caused widespread panic and confusion, and black plumes of smoke billowed above the territory, ruled by the Islamic militant Hamas for the past 18 months. Some of the Israeli missiles struck in densely populated areas as students were leaving school, and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children.
“My son is gone, my son is gone,” wailed Said Masri, a 57-year-old shopkeeper, as he sat in the middle of a Gaza City street, slapping his face and covering his head with dust from a bombed-out security compound nearby.
He said he had sent his 9-year-old son out to purchase cigarettes minutes before the airstrikes began and could not find him. “May I burn like the cigarettes, may Israel burn,” Masri moaned.
Militants often operate against Israel from civilian areas. Late Saturday, thousands of Gazans received Arabic-language cell-phone messages from the Israeli military urging them to leave homes where militants might have stashed weapons.
The offensive began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired. The Israeli army says Palestinian militants have fired some 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week, and 10 times that number over the past year.
“There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, vowing to expand the operation if necessary.
In Gaza City’s main security compound, bodies of more than a dozen uniformed Hamas police lay on the ground. Civilians rushed wounded people in cars and vans to hospitals because there weren’t enough ambulances to transport all the dead and wounded.
In New York, the United Nations Security Council debated in a rare weekend meeting whether to adopt a news statement urging Israel to halt its military operations “without delay.” The Russian-drafted statement would also call for an immediate cessation of rocket attacks on Israeli territory from Gaza.
“This collective punishment is inhumane, immoral and should be stopped immediately,” Palestinian U.N. observer Riyad Mansour said as he headed into the session.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said Hamas’ political leaders could soon be targeted. “Hamas is a terrorist organization and nobody is immune,” she declared.
Gaza’s political leaders, who have been targeted in the past, went into hiding earlier this week. In a speech broadcast on local Gaza television, Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, declared his movement would not be cowed.
“We are stronger, and more determined, and have more will, and we will hold onto our rights even more than before,” Haniyeh said.
Britain, the EU, the Vatican, the U.N. secretary-general and special Mideast envoy Tony Blair all called for an immediate restoration of calm. The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss the situation.
But the U.S., Israel’s closest ally, blamed Hamas. “These people are nothing but thugs, so Israel is going to defend its people against terrorists like Hamas that indiscriminately kill their own people,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.