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Gaza fires more rockets, Israel hits back

Smoke from an airstrike covered a southern part of Gaza City, after Israel stepped up its air attack on Wednesday.

Mohammed Saber/EPA

Smoke from an airstrike covered a southern part of Gaza City, after Israel stepped up its air attack on Wednesday.

JERUSALEM — As new volleys of rockets whizzed toward Israel’s major cities Wednesday and Israel pressed its intensive air bombardment of Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel vowed to increase “the assault on Hamas and the terrorist organizations in Gaza.”

But even as Israel’s jets and drones battered targets all across the narrow Mediterranean enclave, the rising Palestinian death toll and increased international alarm suggested Israel would not have the leeway for a military operation on the scale of 2008’s invasion, which lasted three weeks and involved extensive infantry combat in Gaza.

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The Israeli government was already facing condemnation and criticism from Jordan, the European Union, and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority as the death toll across Gaza hit at least 75 since Saturday, according to the Associated Press. No Israelis have been reported killed.

The United States’ support for the Israeli operation also appeared conditional, Israeli analysts said, as Washington called for “restraint from both sides.”

Israel and Hamas began this latest round of fighting after a spike in tensions fueled by the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers hitchhiking in the West Bank and what is suspected to be the revenge killing of a Palestinian teenager by Israelis.

On Wednesday, after Hamas fired nearly 100 rockets into Israel, Netanyahu met with senior military commanders near Gaza and vowed to press on. He said that with public support “the operation will be expanded and will continue until the firing at our communities stops and quiet is restored.”

Responding to the increasing number of casualties in Gaza, Abbas said Israel was waging “a war against the Palestinian people in every sense of the word” and accused it of “genocide.”

He said he had been in contact with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, who promised to try to restore the cease-fire of 2012 but who has also pointedly not come to the aid of Hamas, which he sees as an adversary.

In a televised speech from Qatar, the Hamas political chief, Khaled Meshal, blamed Israel for the conflict and rejected mediation efforts.

“We receive calls from mediators from Arab and Western sides to broker a cease-fire,” he said. “We say to those who ask us for a lull: Go back!”

The deadliest single strike of the latest flare-up took place early Wednesday when a missile hit the house in northern Gaza of an Islamic Jihad rocket commander, Abdullah Diyfallah, killing him and five family members. Strikes hit other military figures and their houses, as well as rocket launchers and storage facilities.

Hamas continued to fire longer-range rockets across Israel, keeping many Israelis at home or in shelters. One Syrian-made M-302 rocket hit near Hadera, about 70 miles from Gaza, according to an Israeli army spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner, who said that Palestinians in Gaza had “tens” more like it.

A rocket was launched from the coastal strip into Israel by militants of Ezz Al-Din Al Qassam militia.

Mohammed Saber/EPA

A rocket was launched from the coastal strip into Israel by militants of Ezz Al-Din Al Qassam militia.

Still, despite the reach of the rockets, Netanyahu is thought to be reluctant to order a large military operation in Gaza, which could quickly turn bloody for both sides. A ground operation could bring more intense criticism of Israel, as in 2008, for what could be large numbers of Palestinian dead, as Israeli troops fight armed Hamas members who often dress like civilians and live among them.

In 2008, 1,400 Palestinians died and fewer than 15 Israelis.

But Israel then had a more favorable international environment, said Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States until last September.

At that time, Israel had made what was considered a serious peace offer to the Palestinians and got credit for it, especially with Washington. Similarly, Oren said, Israel’s withdrawal of troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005 won it some international praise and tempered the criticism when Israel went to war in Gaza and southern Lebanon the next year for more than a month.

“But we have no credit now in the international community, and that will play quickly in the United Nations Security Council,” said Oren, a scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya. “Our air force is much better and very accurate, but inevitably civilians will be hit and the international reaction will be very quick.”

All that, he said, “is a restraint on a big operation or a prolonged one.”

In a telephone call to Netanyahu from China on Wednesday, US Secretary of State John Kerry did not explicitly ask Netanyahu to rule out a ground attack in Gaza, US officials said.

Rather, the officials said, Kerry’s message was that the United States would try to help Israel fulfill its goal of stopping Hamas’s rocket fire without a ground assault.

The escalating conflict has posed a major challenge for the Obama administration two months after its efforts to pursue Middle East peace talks sputtered to a halt and Kerry said that the peace process would be paused.

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