Israeli forces unleashed some of the most intense bombardments of the 3-week-old war with Hamas on Tuesday, flattening the home of the militant group's top political leader in the Gaza Strip, damaging the offices of an affiliated television station and knocking out the densely populated coastal enclave's only power station, according to Palestinian officials.
The strikes killed more than 100 Palestinians, raising the Gaza death toll in the campaign to more than 1,200. At least 53 soldiers and three civilians have been killed on the Israeli side.
Many of the strikes appeared aimed at weakening Hamas, suggesting an expansion of the Israeli aerial and ground campaign that Israeli officials said was focused on stopping the rocket fire raining down on Israel and destroying the network of tunnels used by Palestinian militants to funnel weapons and fighters into the country. Militants firing antitank missiles emerged from those tunnels Monday and killed five soldiers near a kibbutz called Nahal Oz.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no mention of an expansion, a move some in his Cabinet have urged. But he warned of a “prolonged” campaign ahead.
International efforts to broker a truce have been fruitless. Another cease-fire proposal Tuesday was swiftly dismissed by Israel and Hamas.
The Palestinian leadership in the West Bank had announced that the factions fighting in the strip were prepared to accept a 24-hour humanitarian truce with the possibility of an extension, and would join Palestinian Authority representatives in Cairo for another round of talks.
The announcement followed “intensive contacts and consultations with the leadership of Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Israeli officials said they would wait to hear from Hamas, which governs Gaza.
Sami abu Zuhri, Hamas’ spokesman in Gaza, issued a statement saying Abed-Rabbo’s declaration was incorrect and did not represent the position of the “resistance.”
In an audio recording broadcast on Hamas’ Al Aqsa television channel, Mohammed Deif, leader of the group’s military wing, said, “There will be no cease-fire without ending the blockade and the aggression on Gaza.”
Hamas is demanding that Israel and Egypt lift crippling border restrictions imposed when the militant group took power in Gaza in 2007. Israel says there can be no solution without the “demilitarization” of the strip.
Air raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv and the Jerusalem area as Palestinian militants fired volleys of rockets toward Israel on Tuesday night. In Gaza City, the streets were largely deserted after a night of huge explosions, with orange flares lighting up the sky.
Muna Khutab, 46, said people started fleeing to the northeast of Gaza City around 10 p.m., most without packing, after Red Cross workers passed along evacuation warnings from the Israeli military. “A lot of people left without clothes, shoes,” she said.
Evacuees hurried through the darkened streets amid exploding shells and burning homes, she said. Soon after reaching a relative's house, Khutab said, she received a call saying her 18-year-old niece, Hiba Abu Daff, had been injured in an airstrike. At first light, she rushed to Shifa hospital in Gaza City, where she remained Tuesday at the girl's bedside.
Her niece was curled up under a sheet, with bandages wrapped around her head. Her father, Ibrahim, said the family had retreated to a storage room to wait out the bombardment.
“My daughter was running to get her head scarf when a shell went through the balcony and hit the upper floor where she was,” he said.
More than 10,000 people displaced by the latest shelling piled into overcrowded schools overnight, according to the United Nations aid agency for Palestinian refugees.
The agency, which is sheltering about 200,000 people at 85 schools, was bracing for more arrivals Tuesday after Israeli forces dropped leaflets and sent recorded phone messages warning more residents to evacuate.
“We've reached breaking point in the humanitarian community,” said Chris Gunness, a spokesman for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency. “It is now time for others, particularly the government of Israel, to assume their responsibilities under international law for hundreds of thousands of people displaced by their actions.”
Israel says the evacuation warnings are aimed at protecting noncombatants whom it said Hamas and its allies put in harm’s way by operating in residential areas.
Israel's military said its forces targeted more than 110 sites in Gaza on Tuesday, including the vacant home of Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh and the offices of the group's Al Aqsa television station. Government buildings and mosques also were destroyed.
A fuel tank supplying the strip's only power plant was hit, igniting a fire that shut down the facility.
Damage to power lines from Israel to Gaza already had sharply curtailed the number of hours that residents received power, and loss of the station was likely to leave them in the dark and shut down other services, said Jamal Dardasawi, a spokesman for the electricity distribution company.
“Without power, there will be no sewage processing, no water processing.... Everything will stop,” he said.
The plant's director, Mohammed Sharif, said it could take a year to repair the damage.
Times staff writer Zavis reported from Gaza City and special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman from Jerusalem.
For more news from Israel and the Gaza Strip, follow @alexzavis