GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israel launched a major air assault on the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, bombing dozens of targets in what Israeli officials said was a bid to halt escalating cross-border attacks from Palestinian militants in the seaside enclave who responded with a salvo of more than 150 rockets toward major Israeli cities and its coastal high-tech corridor.
Warning sirens Tuesday night sent Israelis scrambling for bomb shelters in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where a police spokesman said two rockets landed in the city's outskirts. Other rockets struck as far north as Hadera, more than 70 miles north of Gaza.
Israel said its missile interception systems blocked 29 of the rockets, including two over Tel Aviv, and that no injuries or major damage were reported.
The Israeli military said it carried out airstrikes against more than 150 sites in Gaza, killing five alleged members of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza. Ashraf al-Qidrah, a spokesman for Gaza's Health Ministry, said early today that 24 Palestinians had been killed in the Israeli attacks and 152 wounded.
The Israeli operation against Hamas in Gaza is the third since 2008, and it came against the backdrop of weeks of rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions after the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teens in the occupied West Bank – which Israel has blamed on Hamas – and the suspected revenge killing of an Arab youth in East Jerusalem.
Since the abduction of the three Israelis last month, mortar rounds and rocket shells have been fired at Israel almost daily from Gaza, including almost 100 on Monday, according to the Israeli military.
In a sign that the cross-border conflict could widen, Israel said Tuesday it had called up 1,500 reservists and was mobilizing two infantry brigades, artillery, combat bulldozers and tanks along the Gaza border in preparation for a possible ground invasion. The Israeli cabinet subsequently approved the call-up of an additional 40,000 army reservists, the Defense Ministry said.
Hours after Israel launched what it called Operation Protective Edge, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed the army to “take their gloves off” against Hamas and increase attacks on Gaza, according to an account by a senior Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Hamas was not the only militant group firing rockets at Israel, and it was not the only one targeted by retaliatory strikes. A spokesman for the al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, said his group decided to join the assault by firing 60 rockets in three hours.
The spokesman, known as Abu Ahmed, said Israeli forces were frustrated because they had emptied their “target bank,” meaning that there were fewer sites for their missiles to hit. “So they fire their rockets at the same empty fields over and over again, and they do this to satisfy their own people,” Abu Ahmed said.
He said the targets were fewer because both Islamic Jihad and Hamas had “cleaned house” and bolstered their networks against spies.