JERUSALEM — Palestinian deaths from Israel’s aerial attacks in Gaza rose sharply Thursday, while militants there fired more than 180 rockets into Israel, reaching new targets spread across a vast area of the country.
The escalation appeared to increase the likelihood of a ground invasion and prompted UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to call urgently for a return to calm and a cease-fire.
“Today, we face the risk of an all-out escalation in Israel and Gaza, with the threat of a ground offensive still palpable — and preventable only if Hamas stops rocket firing,” he told an emergency meeting of the Security Council.
There were no signs that a cease-fire was imminent, and no signs that diplomats representing the antagonists were heeding Ban’s call for calm.
Ron Prosor, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations, played an air-raid siren at the council meeting to reflect what his country’s citizens hear every day. He called his Palestinian counterpart, Riyad Mansour, “a mouthpiece of Hamas.” Mansour blamed the underlying Israeli occupation, exhorting the council to intervene and “salvage prospects for peace and security.”
In a televised statement after a Cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said, “While the campaign has gone as planned, further stages yet await us,” describing what was to come as “tough” and “complex.”
“We have struck hard at Hamas and the terrorists, and as long as the campaign continues we will strike at them harder,” he said.
President Obama spoke with Netanyahu by phone Thursday from Air Force One while returning to Washington from a fund-raising trip to Colorado and Texas. A White House statement said Obama expressed concern about further escalation of violence and told the Israeli leader that the United States remained prepared to facilitate a cessation of hostilities between Israel and the Palestinians.
Aides said Obama also expressed condolences about the murder of three Israeli teenagers and concern about the beating of a teenage US citizen.
A spokesman for the Israeli military said that about 20,000 reservists had been called up, and that preparations for a possible ground operation were being completed.
As the air campaign entered its third day, the Palestinian death toll rose to at least 78, a majority of them civilians, according to officials in Gaza. No Israelis have been reported killed.
Airstrikes overnight on a house in Khan Younis and an open-air beach cafe killed at least 15 Palestinians, and one airstrike hit a car used by a local news agency bearing media signs, killing the driver, Hamed Shehab, 27, the officials said.
The Israeli military said it had also hit at least eight operatives from Hamas and Islamic Jihad in what it described as several precision strikes.
The Palestine chapter of Defense for Children International, an independent child-rights organization, said 14 children age 15 and younger, including four toddlers, had been killed in the airstrikes Tuesday and Wednesday. The group said its Gaza-based field worker had verified each death.
Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas leader, said on Palestinian radio, “What we need is for the international community to pressure the occupation to halt its aggression, which is unjustified.” He was referring to Israel.
The rocket fire into Israel reached Mitzpeh Ramon, a town deep in the Negev desert, and the Dead Sea area for the first time. More rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system or fell in open spaces in the Tel Aviv area of central Israel. Sirens wailed in Jerusalem in the early evening, and two rockets were intercepted above the city. Two more fell in open areas, one on the outskirts of the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Southern cities that have been the targets of rocket fire for years, like Ashdod and Beersheba, came under heavy rocket attack. The rockets caused extensive property damage but no serious injuries as Israelis ran for cover in shelters and fortified rooms with each siren.
Ban, while repeating his condemnation of indiscriminate rocket fire from Gaza into Israel, also warned Israel, saying “the excessive use of force and endangering of civilian lives are also intolerable.”
“Once again,” he said, “Palestinian civilians are caught between Hamas’ irresponsibility and Israel’s tough response.”