Israel has pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip and rocket salvoes have thudded into southern Israel as terrified residents on both sides are holed up in their homes.
The, air, sea and land operation by Israel, launched in response to several days of rocket fire from the coastal territory, is Israel’s most intense attack on Gaza since its full-scale war there four years ago.
It started with the assassination on Wednesday of Hamas’ top military commander, deepening the instability gripping the Mideast.
Israel’s already strained relations with Egypt’s new Islamist government frayed even further as Cairo recalled its ambassador in response to the Israeli military operation.
Just days earlier, Israel was drawn into Syria’s civil war for the first time, firing missiles into its northern neighbour for the first time in four decades after stray mortar fire landed in Israeli-occupied Syrian territory.
The assassination of Hamas mastermind Ahmed Jabari was followed by a wave of Israeli airstrikes on more than 100 militant targets.
The air attacks continued steadily into early Thursday, targeting the armed group’s training facilities and rocket launchers. Ten Palestinians, including two children and seven militants, were killed on Wednesday and more than 93 were wounded.
Early on Thursday, Israel targeted a motorcycle carrying a rocket squad, killing one militant and wounding two, a Palestinian health official said.
The Israeli military had no immediate confirmation of the report. Tank shells and naval gunfire backed up the air onslaught.
Few in the territory’s largest urban area, Gaza City, came out following the call for dawn prayers, and the only vehicles were ambulances and media cars.
Gaza schools were ordered closed until the operation ends, and most of the territory’s 1.6 million people were expected to hunker down close to home, venturing out only to buy food, fuel and other basic supplies.
Hamas announced a state of emergency in Gaza, evacuating all its security buildings and deploying its troops away from their locations. Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets on several locations in Gaza early on Thursday, warning Gazans to stay away from Hamas.
The Israeli military said that the Hamas fighters and other militant factions, undeterred by the air attacks, bombarded southern Israel with more than 70 rockets after the operation began.
Israel declared a state of emergency in the south, where more than one million Israelis live within rocket range. School was cancelled in communities within a 40km radius of Gaza. People living in areas along the frontier were ordered to stay home from work.
Israel said Wednesday’s airstrikes were the beginning of a broader operation against the Islamic militants and that a ground invasion was a strong possibility in the coming days if Hamas didn’t rein in the rocket fire.
The military said it destroyed dozens of the militants’ most potent rockets – the Iranian-made Fajr, which is capable of striking Israel’s Tel Aviv heartland – as well as shorter-range rockets.
In all, the military estimated Hamas had 10,000 rockets and mortars in its arsenal before the military operation began. In a nationwide address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel could no longer stand repeated attacks on its southern towns.
The Israeli military was cleared to call up special reserve units – a sign the operation might broaden. For the past four years, Israel and Hamas have largely observed an informal truce.
But in recent weeks, the calm has unravelled in a bout of rocket attacks from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. From Israel’s perspective, Hamas escalated the situation with two specific attacks in recent days: an explosion in a tunnel along the Israeli border and a missile attack on an Israeli military jeep that seriously wounded four soldiers.
Earlier this week, Israeli defence officials warned they were considering resuming their controversial practice of assassinating senior militants. Wednesday’s killing of Jabari was an indication they were serious.
Hamas officials had brushed off the Israeli threats, and Jabari, contrary to form, was driving in daylight when his vehicle was hit.
The Hamas military chief had long topped Israel’s most-wanted list, blamed for masterminding a string of deadly attacks that including a bold, cross-border kidnapping of an Israeli soldier in 2006.
He also was believed to be a key player in Hamas’ takeover of Gaza in 2007 from a rival Palestinian faction, the Western-backed Fatah movement.
In a statement, Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, eulogised Jabari and vowed revenge. “We mourn our late leader who walked the path of jihad while he knew the end, either victory or martyrdom,” Haniyeh said. “There is no fear among our people and our resistance, and we will face this vicious attack.”
Hamas accused Netanyahu of launching Wednesday’s operation to win votes in the January parliamentary election.
But major Israeli parties, including the dovish opposition, all lined up behind Netanyahu.
On its official Facebook page, Egypt’s Freedom and Justice Party, which is the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm, called Jabari’s assassination a “crime that requires a quick Arab and international response to stem these massacres against the besieged Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip.”
It accused Israel of trying to “drag the region toward instability”. In Washington, the United States lined up behind Israel.
“We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
President Barack Obama spoke to Netanyahu and they agreed Hamas needed to stop its attacks on Israel to allow tensions to ease, the White House said.
Obama spoke separately to Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi, given Egypt’s central role in preserving regional security, the White House said. The two agreed on the need to de-escalate the conflict as quickly as possible.
On Wednesday night, the UN Security Council met behind closed doors to consider an Egyptian request for an emergency meeting on Israel’s military action in Gaza.
The Palestinians asked the council to act to stop the operation.