Death toll grows as Israel-Gaza violence escalates
GAZA CITY — The rapidly escalating conflict between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip was defined on its second day by images of its most helpless victims.
In Israel, a bloodied infant in a pink jumpsuit was gingerly rescued from the rubble of an apartment building where three other residents were killed by a rocket fired from Gaza. The three deaths in Kiryat Malachi were the first on the Israeli side.
At about the same time, bereaved young parents to the south in Gaza City buried their cheerful 11-month-old boy, who had just learned to say “Mama.”
The boy, Omar Misharawi, was killed Wednesday in an Israeli attack. The explosion tore through the family’s home, killing him and his pregnant aunt as the family dived for cover.
“He was just a few steps behind,” said his stunned mother, Ahlam Misharawi, 24. “He was right behind me.”
The conflict appeared to be turning into what neither Israel nor Hamas wanted: a major confrontation. The death toll rose on both sides and Gaza militants for the first time aimed rockets at Tel Aviv.
As the United Nations, U.S. and Egypt scrambled to negotiate a cease-fire, Israel said it was dispatching troops to the Gaza border for a possible ground invasion. Hamas continued to shower southern Israel with rockets, totaling nearly 300 since Wednesday.
But it was the stories and widely circulated images of bloodied babies that seemed to grip the public on both sides, strengthening their resolve to continue the confrontation. The widening level of violence appeared to put the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas’ military wing on the path to another bitter confrontation similar to one they had four years ago.
That clash proved traumatic for both sides, killing more than 1,200 Palestinians in 22 days and triggering a U.N. inquiry that accused Israel of war crimes and intentionally targeting civilians.
Hopes for a quick resolution seemed to evaporate Thursday night after militants crossed a long-standing Israeli red line by using recently acquired long-range rockets to fire at the heavily populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area and the nearby city of Rishon Lezion, about 40 miles north of Gaza.
The rockets caused no damage but spurred panic in Tel Aviv, which has previously been out of reach of Hamas militants and had not been hit with rockets since it was targeted by Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Earlier in the day, Israeli military officials had expressed confidence that airstrikes over the previous 24 hours had wiped out Hamas’ long-range-rocket supply, denying it the ability to reach Tel Aviv, the heart of Israel’s economy.
Throughout the day, Israeli airstrikes continued to pound dozens of targets in Gaza. Palestinian officials said seven people were killed, including four militants and three civilians, Palestinian officials said.
Thursday’s attacks brought the death toll in Gaza to 15. More than 125 people have been wounded, hospital officials said.
That’s far less than four years ago, when more than 200 Palestinians were killed during the first day of the offensive, in December 2008.
Analysts say Israel appears to have learned the lessons of that conflict by working harder to limit civilian casualties, at least for now.
“While this is not a new principle, it was undoubtedly sharpened by the [U.N.'s] Goldstone report as well as the general international attitude toward Israel,” said Anat Kurz, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Hamas leaders said they had no intention of backing down.
“Israel started this war, but they won’t decide when it ends,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, one of the few Hamas leaders who dared to emerge from hiding Thursday amid concern that Israel might target them.
“We are in a real war and it will reshape the Palestinian-Israel conflict,” he said.
Tension had been mounting for days, since a rocket attack on an Israeli jeep along the Gaza border injured four soldiers. In the ensuing back-and-forth violence, Hamas and other militant groups fired rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel.
The three Israelis killed Thursday were residents of adjacent apartments on the fourth floor of a building in Kiryat Malachi. Pictures of the infant, who survived, were shown repeatedly on television.
A resident of the building who identified himself only as Yitzhak told Israeli news media that he had been joking with his upstairs neighbor. A few minutes later, the rocket ripped through the wall of the building and killed the neighbor.
“You can’t be complacent; you never know when this will hit you,” Yitzhak said.
International leaders were working to prevent the conflict from spiraling further out of control.
Egypt asked the U.S. to intervene by calling on Israel to “end this aggression and to stop the recurring killing and bloodshed of Palestinians,” Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said on Egyptian television.
He said he would send a delegation led by the country’s prime minister to Gaza on Friday in an expression of support.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cut short a European trip to rush back to Ramallah in the West Bank, his aides said.
U.S. officials called for a halt to violence, but they placed the primary responsibility on Hamas to halt the rocket attacks.
“This is violence instigated by Hamas,” said Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman. “Let’s be very clear where the onus lies.”
President Obama spoke to both Morsi and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He asked Morsi to use Egyptian influence to restrain the Palestinians. U.S. officials said they urged the Egyptians and Israelis not to allow the violence to endanger their relations, which are already under considerable strain.
On the streets of Gaza City, the mood was tense but there was no sense of panic. Normally congested roads had less traffic, but cars and pedestrians still ventured out despite periodic airstrikes. Barber shops offered haircuts. Pharmacies did a brisk business. Children played soccer in the streets.
At the same time, most people seemed to expect the situation to worsen, and by nightfall the pace of Israeli attacks rose sharply.
Grocery stores reported that customers were stockpiling bread and other supplies. Some families loaded their mattresses and other belongings into trucks and temporarily moved out of neighborhoods they feared could draw Israeli fire.
But Egypt’s promise to keep the Rafah crossing open and the relatively low death toll so far have led many families to stay put for now. Many expressed support for the Hamas fighters.
“Hamas should keep on resisting and fighting,” said Mohamed Zyara, the owner of a Gaza City pet shop. “It’s the only way we can get our dignity back.”
At the funeral of top Hamas commander Ahmed Jabari, who was killed Wednesday, thousands of young men rode motorcycles through the streets and fired gunshots into the air.
“Do you want a truce?” an organizer shouted through a megaphone.
“No!” the crowded chanted back.
Hospitals said they were running low on painkillers and anesthetics but were not overburdened with patients.
“This isn’t as bad as the last time, when we were over capacity on the first day,” said Ashraf Qedra, an administrator at Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s largest. “But of course we know it’s going to get worse.”
Seconds later, a shell exploded several blocks away, its target apparently a Hamas training center.
“You see?” Qedra said. Minutes later ambulances screeched into the driveway with wounded.
Staff writer Paul Richter in Washington, Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem bureau and special correspondent Reem Abdellatif in Cairo contributed to this report.