The death toll in the Gaza Strip increased sharply Thursday, as Israel stepped up its aerial offensive on the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave, and Palestinian militants unleashed volleys of rocket fire on Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other cities.
Medical officials in Gaza reported more than 22 people killed Thursday, bringing the campaign's toll among Palestinians to at least 89 dead and more than 600 injured. No Israelis have been killed, and the injuries reported so far have mostly been light.
Israeli warplanes fired missiles at launch sites, weapons stockpiles and suspected militants in Gaza, including three men identified by Israeli authorities as Islamic Jihad members involved in manufacturing rockets.
The strikes have also killed many civilians, Palestinian health officials said. Thursday’s victims reportedly included at least seven members of the same family, who died in an airstrike on their home in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis.
Five other people were killed overnight as they watched a World Cup soccer match at a beachside café in Khan Younis, media reports said. Israeli aircraft also targeted a van used by a local production company that had “TV” marked on the roof, killing the driver.
Militants struck back Thursday with more than 190 rockets aimed at Israel, at least 44 of which were intercepted by the mobile air defense system known as Iron Dome before hitting major population centers.
A volley of five rockets aimed at Tel Aviv was intercepted early in the day, sending shrapnel into the streets and suburbs of the central Israeli metropolis. Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for the rockets, which were launched shortly after its three men were killed.
In the evening, four rockets were fired at Jerusalem. The militant group Hamas claimed responsibility for those projectiles, two of which were intercepted, while two landed in open areas.
In an apparent attempt to overwhelm Iron Dome interceptors, larger volleys of 10 and 15 rockets were fired in rapid succession at southern cities such as Beersheba, in the Negev desert, and Ashdod, on the Mediterranean coast.
One rocket ripped through an apartment in Beersheba, leaving it in shambles. The occupants had just made it into a reinforced concrete space and were unharmed.
Earlier in the day, two Israeli soldiers were lightly and moderately wounded in a mortar attack near Gaza, officials said. Air-raid sirens also sounded in Dimona, where Israel’s main nuclear reactor is located.
Rocket fire directed toward central Israel disrupted air traffic at Ben Gurion international airport.
More than 470 rockets have been fired into Israel since the military operation began early Tuesday, pushing increasingly deeper and hitting locations as far as 75 miles from Gaza.
The sharp increase in armed hostilities followed the kidnapping and killing last month of three Israeli teenagers, which Israel blames on Hamas, and the killing of a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem last week by suspected Jewish extremists, apparently in revenge.
The United Nations Security Council met in New York on Thursday to discuss the crisis. During the meeting, Israel's U.N. ambassador, Ron Prosor, played a recording of an air-raid siren to illustrate what people living within rocket-range were experiencing, the Associated Press reported. His Palestinian counterpart, Riyad Mansour, decried the Israeli “barrage of death, destruction and terror.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged both sides to end the hostilities, saying the region could not afford another full-blown war.
“Once again civilians are paying the price for the continuation of conflict,” he was quoted as saying. “My paramount concern is the safety and well-being of all civilians, no matter where they are.”
U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, in Beijing for a summit with Chinese leaders, called it a “dangerous moment” for the Middle East. He said he had spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu convened an extended meeting of his security cabinet on Thursday as the military continued to build up its forces in case of a ground incursion into Gaza. About 20,000 army reservists have been called up so far, half the number approved by security cabinet ministers.
Israel is “prepared and ready for any scenario,” President Shimon Peres said Thursday.
Meanwhile, Israel has launched a constant, increasingly rapid stream of airstrikes. In the first 48 hours of the offensive, 750 sites were struck throughout the Gaza Strip, more than half the number targeted during its last eight-day-long military campaign against rocket launchers in Gaza in November 2012, according to army officials.
As the death toll mounted among Palestinians, Israeli government and military officials scrambled to defend their operations.
Netanyahu told reporters that Israeli forces were making every effort to avoid hitting civilians. “If innocents are hit, it is because Hamas is maliciously hiding behind Palestinian civilians,” he said.
The army says it gives advance warning by phone and other means before targeting houses of suspected militants, including on Tuesday, when seven members of the Kaware family were killed in a strike on their Khan Younis home.
According to army spokesman Peter Lerner, people returned to the site after the first of two projectiles was fired, and it was too late to abort the second.
“It is a tragedy indeed, and not what we wanted,” he said.
Sobelman is a special correspondent. Special correspondent Rushdi Abu Alouf in Gaza City contributed to this report.