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Israel bombs more than 50 targets in offensive against Hamas

Smoke rose from a building after an Israeli strike in Gaza City on Tuesday.

Hatem Moussa/AP

Smoke rose from a building after an Israeli strike in Gaza City on Tuesday.

JERUSALEM — Israel began an intensive aerial bombardment in Gaza early Tuesday, hitting more than 50 targets, including at least four homes that the military said belonged to militants. Palestinian officials and witnesses in Gaza said at least 11 people had been killed, including seven people in a three-story house obliterated by an Israeli rocket that went through the roof.

It was the deadliest day so far in the latest resurgence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fed partly by the raw rage over the kidnapping and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the occupied West Bank last month and what appeared to be the grisly revenge kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem last week.

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The aerial barrage followed the firing of about 80 rockets out of Gaza on Monday that reached deep into southern Israel. Military officials said additional reservists were being called up in anticipation of a possible ground assault.

Witnesses and Health Ministry officials in Gaza said the first of at least three deadly Israeli airstrikes Tuesday destroyed a car in Gaza City, killing three unidentified occupants. The second was an Israeli rocket that witnesses said had been fired by an F-16 warplane on a house in Khan Younis, a town in the southeast part of Gaza, where seven occupants were found dead in the wreckage.

A telephoned warning was made to the owner of the targeted home in Khan Younis five minutes before the bombing, apparently part of the Israeli military’s stated effort to minimize unintended civilian casualties. Salah Kaware, 25, who lived in the house, said that a call came to the cellphone of his brother’s wife, and that the caller urged them to leave. Some of the occupants were descending the upper floor stairway when the roof was hit with a rocket, Kaware said in a telephone interview.

An unidentified member of Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls Gaza, was killed in a third airstrike, in an open space in central Gaza.

Ashraf al-Qedra, a Health Ministry spokesman, said more than 50 people had been wounded since the Israeli air assaults had begun.

The Israeli military said that its targets had included what it called a “terror command center embedded within civilian infrastructure” utilized by a militant in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

The air campaign comes after three weeks of escalating confrontation, with rocket attacks from Gaza against southern Israel, and Israeli airstrikes on targets it has described as concealed rocket launchers, training sites and weapons manufacturing facilities associated with Hamas and other militant groups. Fury on both sides over the teenage victims of Israel-Palestinian enmity have fed the momentum.

Hamas’ military wing said in an emailed statement that the bombing of the houses was “a serious escalation” that “will oblige us to enlarge our attacks deeper into Israel.”

Early Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces announced on Twitter that they had “commenced Operation Protective Edge in Gaza against Hamas in order to stop the terror Israel’s citizens face on a daily basis.”

In a statement from his office, the Israeli defense minister, Moshe Yaalon, said, “Hamas is leading this current confrontation to a place in which it aspires to exact a heavy price from our home front.”

“In the last few hours we have attacked with force and struck dozens of Hamas’ assets,” Yaalon added, saying that the military was “continuing its offensive effort in a manner that will exact a very heavy price from Hamas.” He said the campaign was likely to last more than a few days.

In a conference call with reporters, Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said there would be “a gradual increase in the pressure we are putting on Hamas.”

The government approved the call-up of 1,500 reservists, mainly Home Front Command and aerial defense units, and said later Tuesday that it had authorized the military to mobilize as many as 40,000 additional reservists if necessary.

Lerner said that Israel was “watching to see what the reaction is with Hamas, to see how they respond to our steps.” His comments echoed those of other officials and experts, who have suggested that the initial blitz was meant as a warning, with the hope that Hamas would rein in its fire to avoid a ground invasion. Referring to such a development, Lerner said, “I don’t see that happening immediately.”

The hostilities erased an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that ended eight days of fierce cross-border fighting in November 2012. That came after a devastating, three-week military offensive waged by Israel with air and ground forces against militant groups in the winter of 2008-09.

Israeli experts often describe Israel’s periodic campaigns in Gaza in terms of “mowing the grass,” a kind of routine maintenance with the limited goals of curbing rocket fire, destroying as much of the militant groups’ infrastructure as possible and restoring deterrence.

“This sort of maintenance needs to be carried out from time to time, perhaps even more often,” Yoav Galant, a former commander of Israel’s southern district, including the area around Gaza, told Army Radio.

In Sderot, an Israeli town about a mile from the border with Gaza that was first hit by rockets 13 years ago, residents in an open-air market ran with their shopping bags to find shelter behind a truck or by a wall when an incoming rocket alert sounded, then went back to buying groceries.

Limor Porin, 42, a mother of two, said she had come to shop alone after leaving her children at home close to a fortified room.

“The family needs to eat,” she said, as the loud booms from Gaza shook the town. “Life is stronger than fear.”

Palestinians searched the wreckage of vehicle following an Israeli airstrike.

Khalil Hamra/AP

Palestinians searched the wreckage of vehicle following an Israeli airstrike.

Away from the market, the streets were empty as most people opted to stay indoors.

Israel has banned gatherings of more than 300 people and ordered kindergartens, summer camps and schools to close for the day in a 25-mile radius around Gaza. The military estimates that there are some 10,000 rockets, both homemade and imported, in Gaza. During the last round of fighting in 2012, several reached Tel Aviv.

The latest round of tensions along the border with Gaza began with the kidnapping of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank on June 12. Israel blamed Hamas for their abduction and conducted a broad clampdown against Hamas’ infrastructure in the West Bank, raiding scores of institutions and arresting hundreds. The teenagers were later found dead.

At around the same time, an airstrike killed a Palestinian as he rode a motorcycle in the northern Gaza Strip. Israel said the man, who was also employed as a Hamas police officer, had been involved in numerous rocket attacks against Israel. Later in June, two more people suspected of being militants were killed in an Israeli airstrike as they rode in a car. No militant group in Gaza has claimed them as members, but they were buried wrapped in the black flags of the radical Salafi movement.

At first, radical Islamic groups that are not necessarily under Hamas’ control increased the rocket fire against Israel. By Monday, however, Hamas was taking responsibility for the attacks, which have put tens of thousands of Israelis on alert and sent them rushing into safe rooms and bomb shelters. More than a dozen rockets crashed into open ground near the southern city of Beersheba, about 25 miles from Gaza. The Israeli military said its missile defense system had intercepted several rockets over the port city of Ashdod, north of Gaza on the Mediterranean coast, and over the southern town of Netivot. One soldier was injured by shrapnel from a rocket near the Gaza border, according to the military.

The Israeli airstrikes turned deadlier on Sunday and Monday, with Hamas vowing to avenge the deaths of six of its fighters, its heaviest losses in months. Five of the militants were apparently killed in a tunnel two days after the Israeli air force struck it. The military said the tunnel had been intended for use against Israeli forces. When Hamas militants entered the tunnel on Sunday night, it either collapsed or exploded.

Asked about the repercussions of carrying out such an operation during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Lerner said Hamas had created “an unacceptable, unbearable reality” for 1 million Israelis in the range of the rockets fired Monday. Gaza residents should understand, he said, that “this is the type of Ramadan Hamas has brought on them.”

Ismail Haniya, the Gaza-based deputy chief of the Hamas movement, called early Tuesday for the Palestinians to strengthen internal unity to confront the Israeli military offensive.

Hamas recently entered into a reconciliation pact with the more moderate Palestinian Authority leadership based in the West Bank, which has been urging calm. Intended to heal a seven-year split between Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the pact has resulted in a new government, but little else, so far.

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