Pierced by an Israeli missile, the mosque exploded at 1 in the morning, crushing the Balousha family’s flimsy metal roof next door.
Anwar Balousha awoke on the floor, covered by rubble, and heard moans from the bedroom next to his. Neighbors crawled over a collapsed wall and pulled him, his wife and four of their nine children to safety.
Five Balousha girls -- Tahir, 17; Ikram, 14; Samar, 12; Dina, 8; and Jawaher, 4 -- were dead, swelling the list of Palestinian civilians killed in three days of Israeli airstrikes on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
About 8 1/2 hours later and 10 miles away, air raid sirens wailed across the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, but Hani Mahdi, 27, reacted too late. A Grad missile fired from Gaza tore through a building site for the city’s new library, killing Mahdi and wounding 23 other construction workers.
The two attacks Monday tell much about a battle of unequal forces, one that suddenly escalated Saturday when Israel began a crushing assault on an Islamic paramilitary group that it said had turned tiny Gaza into an intolerable source of rocket fire.
Israel widened the scope of its air attacks Monday to strike the homes of two senior Hamas commanders, killing seven people identified by medical authorities as civilians. The secular Palestinian Authority leadership in the West Bank announced a suspension of its U.S.-brokered peace talks with Israel in protest over the Gaza offensive.
At least 364 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Saturday; the United Nations says 62 of them were noncombatant women and children. By contrast, four Israeli civilians have been killed by attacks from Gaza, bringing the total to 11 this year.
Israel is far better equipped than Gaza to absorb the conflict. Israelis within a 20-mile radius of Gaza have been instructed by the authorities to stay close to protected spaces. Hanukkah school vacations in the area, due to end Monday, were extended indefinitely.
When rockets fall on Ashkelon, a team of civil servants maps them on a giant computer screen in an underground “war room,” quickly calculates the number of people likely to be affected and dispatches emergency crews to the scene.
Gaza’s emergency services are crippled by the airstrikes and power outages caused in part by an Israeli blockade. The coastal enclave’s police force isn’t much help; run by Hamas, its officers are Israeli targets, killed or driven into hiding.
While Gaza’s beleaguered hospitals stack dead bodies on the floor and turn away wounded Palestinians for lack of beds, Israel moves efficiently to care for its wounded.
The largest hospital near the Gaza border, in Ashkelon, has put several wards securely underground.
But Israel and Gaza have a parity in at least one thing: Grief over civilian casualties has fed bitterness on both sides of a conflict that shows no sign of letup.
“This is a war crime. The enemy’s leaders should face justice,” said Balousha, badly bruised and leaning on two relatives as he limped through his daughters’ funeral procession.
Khalid Kabanin, a 41-year-old tax consultant visiting his wounded brother in Ashkelon’s hospital, sounded just as angry. Like the victims of Monday’s rocket attack, he is an Arab citizen of Israel and his fury was aimed at both sides.
“The leaders need to get off their butts and find a way to make peace,” he said. “We all have children. This cannot be their future.”
Peace is unlikely to come soon. Hamas, whose charter calls for the Jewish state’s destruction, is urging a campaign of suicide bombings in Israel. Israeli tanks and soldiers have massed along the Gaza border for what Defense Minister Ehud Barak promised Monday would be “all-out war.”
The mounting toll of civilian casualties has alarmed world leaders, prompting many to criticize what they call a disproportionate Israeli response to Hamas’ attacks and to urge renewal of a truce that unraveled last month.
“While recognizing Israel’s right to defend itself, I have also condemned the excessive use of force by Israel in Gaza,” U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Monday. “I have continuously stressed the need for strict observance of international humanitarian law.”
Israeli officials acknowledge that their offensive is overwhelming. But they insist it is a legally defensible and effective means to discourage rocket fire that Hamas aims deliberately at Israeli civilians.
Because Hamas has stored weapons in civilian neighborhoods, Israeli officials say, the militant group bears primary responsibility for any civilian casualties sustained in attacking those stashes.
Maj. Avital Leibowitz, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the mosque near the Balousha home in Gaza’s Jabaliya refugee camp was, “as far as we know,” a weapons storehouse.
That argument meant nothing to Balousha in the cold hospital morgue where he identified the remains of his daughters. As he reached to touch his 4-year-old, he fainted.
Several hundred mourners chanting “Bomb Tel Aviv!” bore the five sisters’ bodies to the camp’s cemetery, wrapped in green Hamas flags.
The grieving Balousha said he had no sympathy for the hundreds of thousands of Israeli civilians within range of Hamas’ rockets.
“Let them first feel the pain of our revenge, then come ask me whether I feel sorry for them,” he said in response to a reporter’s question. “There is a consensus in their public opinion to kill us. No one spoke a word to stop their aggressive assaults against us.”
Around the time of the funeral in Gaza, cellphones began ringing in southern Israel, in the adjacent Bedouin communities of Aroer and Rahat. Members of the construction crew in Ashkelon were calling home to report the missile strike.
“There was panic and confusion,” said Khaled Latif, a 37-year-old businessman who received one of the calls. “They were saying one worker was dead, but at first we didn’t know who.”
Hamas’ military wing claimed responsibility for the attack. “The Zionist enemy admitted the death of a Zionist and the wounding of others,” a Hamas statement said.
Surviving members of the crew, all Israeli Arabs, took offense. “These are painful words,” said a worker who identified himself only as Osman. “It doesn’t matter if we’re Jews or Arabs. We all need to live.”
The construction crew had a fortified shelter on the second floor of the unfinished building, where they were working when the air raid siren went off. But rather than duck into the shelter, Osman said, they were heading downstairs when the missile hit.
Mahdi was the first person killed by a Hamas strike on Ashkelon, which has been hit 14 times since Saturday. The city of 120,000 people north of the Gaza border first became a target early this year when Hamas began to upgrade its arsenal of crude rockets, expanding their range.
“It was frightening. I was shivering,” Andrey Bokti, a 17-year-old Israeli, wrote on his blog after witnessing Monday’s attack. He described the scene as others in the city took cover. “The streets are empty, the city is empty, the malls are closed. . . . Fear and terror. But in war, we need to stay strong.”
Burai is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Geraldine Baum at the United Nations contributed to this report.