GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel widened its air assault against the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers on Saturday, hitting a mosque it said was hiding rockets, as Palestinians said their death toll from the five-day offensive rose to over 125.
The military said it has struck more than 1,100 targets, including Hamas rocket launchers, command centers and weapon manufacturing and storage facilities, in a bid to stop relentless rocket fire coming Gaza. Officials in the territory said that besides the mosque, the strikes also hit Hamas-affiliated charities and banks, as well as a home for the disabled, killing two women.
The central Gaza mosque was being used to conceal rockets like those militants have fired nearly 700 times toward Israel over the past five days, the military said. However, the strikes in the densely populated Gaza Strip show the challenge Israel faces as it considers a ground operation that could potentially pose further dangers to civilians.
While there have been no fatalities in Israel from the continued rocket fire, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said overnight Israeli strikes raised the death toll there to over 125, with more than 920 wounded.
Hamas militants have been hit hard. Though the exact breakdown of casualties remains unclear, dozens of the dead also have been civilians.
The offensive showed no signs of slowing down Saturday as Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said his country should ready itself for several more days of fighting.
“We have accumulated achievements as far as the price Hamas is paying and we are continuing to destroy significant targets of it and other terror organizations,” Yaalon said after a meeting with top security officials. “We will continue to punish it until quiet and security returns to southern Israel and the rest of the country.”
Hamas said it hoped the mosque attack would galvanize support for it in the Muslim world.
“(It) shows how barbaric this enemy is and how much it is hostile to Islam,” said Husam Badran, a Hamas spokesman in Doha, Qatar. “This terrorism gives us the right to broaden our response to deter this occupier.”
The Israeli military released an aerial photo of the mosque it hit, saying Hamas hid rockets in it right next to another religious site and civilian homes. It said Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza militant groups use this tactic of abusing religious sites to conceal weapons and establish underground tunnel networks, deliberately endangering civilians.
“Hamas terrorists systematically exploit and choose to put Palestinians in Gaza in harm’s way and continue to locate their positions among civilian areas and mosques, proving once more their disregard for human life and holy sites,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.
Critics though say such allegations are too sweeping, and that Israel’s heavy bombardment of one of the densely populated territories is itself the main factor putting civilians at risk.
Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem said that while using human shields violates international humanitarian law, “this does not give Israel the excuse to violate international humanitarian law as well.”
Israel issues early warnings before attacking Gaza targets and the military says it uses other means to do its utmost to avoid harming bystanders. But Michaeli said civilians have been killed when Israel bombed family homes of Hamas militants or when residents were unable to leave their homes quickly enough following the Israeli warnings.
“Justifying all Israeli attacks that lead to civilian casualties by saying Hamas is using human shields is factually incorrect,” she said.
The rocket fire from Gaza militants appeared to tail off somewhat Saturday, with a new round resuming later in the day. The “Iron Dome,” a U.S.-funded, Israel-developed rocket defense system, has intercepted more than 130 incoming rockets, preventing any Israeli fatalities so far. A handful of Israelis have been wounded by rockets that slipped through.
The most seriously wounded Israeli resulted from a rocket that struck a gas station Friday in the southern city of Ashdod, setting off a huge explosion. A house in Beersheba suffered a direct hit though the family living there was not home.
As a precaution, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv relocated its personnel assigned to Beersheba. However, militant rockets have reached further into Israel than ever before, with air raid sirens sounding even in the northern city of Haifa, 100 miles (160 kilometers) away.
The frequent rocket fire has disrupted daily life in Israel, particularly in southern communities that have absorbed the brunt of it. Israelis mostly have stayed close to home. Television channels air non-stop coverage of the violence and radio broadcasts are interrupted live with every air raid siren warning of incoming rockets.
The frequent airstrikes have turned the normally frenetic Gaza City into a virtual ghost town, emptying streets, closing shops and keeping hundreds of thousands of people close to home where they feel safest from the bombs.
The offensive is the heaviest fighting since a similar eight-day campaign in November 2012 to stop Gaza rocket fire. The outbreak of violence follows the kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, and the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent revenge attack.
Israel has pummeled Gaza at twice the rate of the 2012 operation and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on with the campaign until there is a complete halt to rocket attacks from the seaside Palestinian territory. Israel has massed thousands of troops along the border in preparation for a possible ground invasion, with soldiers atop vehicles mobilized and ready to move into Gaza if the order arrives.
A senior military official said Saturday that Israel estimated Hamas still had thousands of rockets in its arsenal and it would take Israel more time to eliminate the threat to its civilians.
“There is no knockout. It is more complicated,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of military guidelines.
Israel has begun coming under international pressure as Palestinian casualties have grown. The United States and European leaders have stressed Israel’s right to defend itself, but the United Nations says it is concerned over civilian deaths in Gaza, and anti-Israel protests have taken place in Europe. In the West Bank, Hamas supporters clashed with Israeli troops over the Gaza offensive.
The Arab League said foreign ministers from member states will hold an emergency meeting in Cairo on Monday evening to discuss the continued Israeli offensive and measures to urge the international community to pressure Israel.
Egypt, which historically has served as a mediator between Israel and Hamas, appears less eager to help out this time. Hamas was particularly close to the Muslim Brotherhood, who the current leadership banned after driving it from power last year.
Still, it has tried to show support for Palestinians by opening its crossing with Gaza, allowing deliveries of food and medical supplies and evacuation of some wounded.
Heller reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.
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