JERUSALEM – Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Thursday killed at least 18 Palestinians – including five children – as Palestinian gunmen fired 45 rockets and mortar shells into southern Israel. Israel warned that Hamas’s use of more sophisticated rockets could trigger a full-scale invasion.
Israel carried out 11 airstrikes in northern Gaza that officials said were aimed at rocket-launching sites and Hamas fighters. But four boys playing soccer, the youngest of whom was 8, were also killed in the strikes, according to Palestinian hospital officials. One other child was killed, along with two adult civilians. At least nine of the others who died Thursday were fighters, the officials said.
The Israeli military said Palestinian rocket and mortar fire injured two Israelis.
Seven rockets have landed in the city of Ashkelon in the past two days, prompting accusations from Israeli officials that Hamas is using more formidable rockets than it has in the past. Ashkelon, a coastal city of about 120,000 people, is six miles north of Gaza. Israeli officials said the rockets that landed there have been Iranian-made, Grad-style rockets, which have a longer range and are considered more lethal than the relatively crude Qassam rockets that Hamas has traditionally used.
“What we saw today was really an escalation,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Arye Mekel, asserting that the greater range of the Grad rockets means that “a quarter of a million Israeli citizens are in danger.” Mekel indicated that a stronger Israeli response may be in the offing. “Israel left Gaza not in order to return to it. However, the continuation of terror may put Israel in a position where we have no choice,” he said.
Israel pulled its settlers out of Gaza in 2005. Last June, Hamas seized control, ending a power-sharing deal with the secular Fatah party, which favors negotiations with Israel. Since then, the volume of rocket fire has increased, and pressure has grown on the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to topple Hamas, a radical Islamic movement that has both a military wing and a network of social services, and that seeks to eradicate Israel.
Olmert, traveling in Japan on Thursday, said Israel is “at the height of this battle.”
“We are taking painful blows, and we will hit back with even more painful blows,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is due to visit Israel next week to prod Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority to continue peace negotiations. Israeli officials said her visit could end up delaying any major Israeli offensive in Gaza.
Thursday’s violence brought the two-day death toll to at least 28, including an Israeli college student killed Wednesday, and the intensifying hostilities seemed likely to complicate any efforts to forge a peace deal this year. A spokesman for the Palestinian Authority accused Israel’s government of trying “to destroy the peace process.”
“The mounting number of casualties is disturbing to everyone. People are seriously scared that this is becoming an all-out kind of war. It’s really disturbing,” said Eyad Sarraj, head of Gaza Community Mental Health.