An Israeli soldier directs a Merkava tank in an army deployment area near Israel's border with the Gaza Strip on July 8. / AFP
ASHKELON, Israel - Israel's military launched fresh airstrikes against targets in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip on Tuesday, the heaviest bombardment in nearly two years in a bid to halt a barrage of rocket fire that has pummeled southern parts of Israel. Hamas said the shelling killed more than a dozen Palestinians.
Israel is seeking to "retrieve stability to the residents of southern Israel, eliminate Hamas' capabilities and destroy terror infrastructure operating against the State of Israel and its civilians," its military said in a statement. It said that nearly 300 rockets and mortars have been fired at Israel recently, including close to 100 rockets fired on Monday alone.
Israel says the airstrikes are part of an expanded operation for its military forces it is calling "Operation Protective Edge." Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded that Israel immediately stop its offensive.
That marks a huge surge after years of relative quiet. The immediate trigger for the escalation has been heightened tensions over the killing of three Israeli teenagers and the apparent revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager.
Late Tuesday, two separate rocket attacks targeted Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital. Both were intercepted by Israel's "Iron Dome" rocket defense system. Another salvo set off air-raid sirens in Jerusalem. Both cities are nearly 50 miles north of Gaza, the deepest strike yet.
The siren set off panic in Tel Aviv, as people scurried for cover in nearby buildings.
In the small Israeli seaside city of Ashkelon that sits hard by the border with Gaza, mother of two Revital Amsallem - her children are ages 3 and 6 - stayed behind the counter of the toy store where she works on Tuesday.
"There's no shelter in this building," said Amsallem, gazing in the direction of the mall, which, like many of the city's buildings, was built before the concept of Red Alert became well known here. The phrase is the code for "incoming rocket." When the alert sounds, anyone within running distance of a bomb shelter seeks safety there. Even so, when the third air raid siren of the morning started to wail on Tuesday, Amsallem stayed behind the counter.
"It's my daughter's birthday today and we were going to throw a party at her preschool, but preschool and summer camps are closed due to the danger," said Amsallem. "But we have to work so the kids are staying with my in-laws."
In Gaza, more than a dozen Palestinians were killed and scores severely injured in an Israeli airstrike targeting homes in the southern Gaza Strip Tuesday, bringing the death toll from Israeli airstrikes to 22, including at least five children, the Gaza Health Ministry said.
Dozens of sites were targeted in more than 70 strikes in Beit Lahiya, Gaza City, and Khan Younis, destroying houses that belonged to at least five families, Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Qidra said. "Bombing civilian homes is a red line," warned the Brigades of Izz al-Din Alksaam, Hamas' military wing, in a written statement from the press information office. Hamas added that it has the right to defend Palestinian civilians.
The Ministry of Health declared a state of maximum alert as it faced a shortage of medicine and equipment: Last week, the agency said half of all ambulances had stopped providing services because of a fuel shortage.
Wafaa Ajrami, 53, whose house was almost hit in a strike in Beit Lahia, in northern Gaza, said his family is scared and that he remains worried about the situation in the next few days. "I heard a loud noise, then Israeli aircraft bombed the vacant land next to my home and all the windows shattered," he said. "I found my five children screaming. I lied to them that the sound was fireworks."
Some Gazans remained defiant in spite of the possibility of future attacks. "I know to expect more of this madness and I am not afraid," said Mohamed Hassouna, 54, who owns a supermarket in Gaza City. "Israel is doomed â?? I am confident in the Palestinian resistance. Our rockets will hit Tel Aviv. I will be patient."
Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the army will gradually increase its attacks on Hamas in Gaza, and is recruiting additional reservists for a potential ground invasion of Gaza. The Hamas rockets that reached Israel have not led to deaths.
In Ashkelon on Tuesday some residents said the outward calm conveyed by the wading pools for sale outside the toy shop, as well as cafes that are staying open, is an attempt to continue with the routines of life despite the deteriorating security situation.
But Amsallem said the fact that her toy store and other shops are open for business Tuesday is "deceptive."
"People are afraid to leave the house and afraid to keep their kids home alone. There's almost no business. We're sleeping in our protected rooms," she said.
Others say they are living in a state of limbo, waiting to see whether Israel will wage an all-out war on Gaza or continue with targeted airstrikes.
"I pray that we'll be able to stop the rockets without a full-scale war," said Ashkelon resident Chaya Turgeman.
Turgeman moved to southern Israel from the north three months ago and said she had grown up with bomb shelters due to years of rocket fire from south Lebanon.
"I guess you could say I traded one problem for another problem," she said.
Contributing: Miriam Hamed in Gaza City, Associated Press
Read the original story: Israel mulls Gaza ground invasion