Palestinian rocket fire from the Gaza Strip struck a crowded shopping mall Wednesday in the Israeli city of Ashkelon, destroying a children’s clinic and wounding 16 people, including an infant rescued from the rubble.
The attack occurred as President Bush was meeting with Israeli leaders in Jerusalem to discuss threats faced by the Jewish state, which is celebrating its 60th anniversary. Two Israeli raids earlier in the day left three Palestinian militants and two civilians dead in Gaza.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert immediately came under pressure to launch a wider offensive, even as his government was weighing an Egyptian-brokered truce proposal from Hamas, the Islamic militant movement that runs the coastal enclave.
Two militant groups, one linked to Hamas, claimed responsibility for the rocket attack.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a Grad-type rocket bearing at least 11 pounds of explosives crashed through the roof of the four-story Hutzot mall, causing extensive damage to the top two floors.
The city’s early warning system, meant to give people a few seconds to take cover, was not functioning. Israel’s Ynet news agency reported that it had been turned off this week after an unusual number of false alarms.
“There was a gigantic boom,” said Margalit Shohat, the mall’s maintenance chief. “No siren, no alarm, no warning.”
Early evening bustle at the neon-lighted mall, about 10 miles north of the Gaza line, turned to panic as shoppers fled stores, cafes and restaurants, screaming as they dodged cascading clumps of plaster.
A woman, her 2-year-old daughter and a doctor at the top-floor children’s clinic were seriously wounded.
Gilbert Maman, a paramedic in a bloodstained white shirt, said that as he ran upstairs toward the clinic “a man handed me a child, a girl of 3, injured and bleeding everywhere.”
After treating her, he told Channel 1 television, he rushed back and “we found another three victims under the rubble.” Fire officials said an infant was among those pulled out alive.
Television showed a young woman in jeans who had collapsed in hysteria in a stairwell next to a large wall painting of Dora the Explorer and her monkey companion Boots, television cartoon celebrities.
The Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad and the Hamas-linked Popular Resistance Committees claimed joint responsibility for the attack on behalf of “Palestinian refugees everywhere” who were displaced during Israel’s creation in 1948.
Olmert said before the attack that his government was considering “possible terms in what may emerge as a cease-fire” with Gaza militants, whose rocket fire killed two Israelis last week.
But he added, “We will not be able to tolerate continuous attacks on innocent civilians.”
Israeli leaders have been reluctant to order a full-scale invasion of Gaza for fear of heavy casualties to Israeli soldiers. Their hesitation is under growing criticism here as Gaza militants, who have fired homemade Kassam rockets at small Israeli border communities for years, improve their weaponry. Only in recent months have the more sophisticated Soviet-designed Grads begun landing deeper in Israel, many in Ashkelon, a coastal city of 108,000.
Several political leaders called Wednesday for strong retaliation. Benny Elon of the right-wing opposition National Union suggested that Olmert was holding back in order not to spoil Bush’s festive 48-hour visit with scenes of heavy fighting in Gaza.
“Woe betides a state whose leaders are occupied with cocktail parties while they are incapable of defending their citizens,” he said.
Shohat, the mall’s maintenance chief, leveled scathing criticism at Olmert, who is under police investigation this month in the latest of several corruption cases.
“This is what we’re going to deal with every day, corruption?” she told Israel Radio. “What about some security here? Such an amazing nation with a tremendous army. Yet we have no security.”
Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.