Israel pounds Gaza from air as troops assemble

 

Israel's four-day-old air offensive in the Gaza Strip expanded to target Hamas government buildings on Saturday, and Palestinian militants continued firing a torrent of rockets at civilian areas in southern Israel, as both sides stepped up diplomatic efforts to win support.

Israeli airstrikes over Gaza accelerated to nearly 200 early in the day, including one hit that reduced the offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to a smoldering concrete heap. That strike, along with others on a police headquarters and smuggling tunnels along the strip's southern border with Egypt, raised questions about whether Israel had broadened its mission to including toppling the Hamas government that rules the coastal strip.

Just before sundown, Hamas said it had shot an Iranian-made Fajr-5 rocket at Tel Aviv, and air raid sirens sounded in that city for the third day in a row. The Israeli military said its newly deployed missile defense battery intercepted the rocket before it landed in the populous coastal city.

Even as airstrikes pounded Saturday morning, the foreign minister of Tunisia's Islamist-led government, Rafik Abdessalem, arrived in Gaza with a delegation, underscoring Hamas's newfound credibility in a region dramatically altered by the Arab Spring. Abdessalem expressed outrage at what he called Israeli "aggression" and pledged to unite with other Arab countries to end the conflict.

In Cairo, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, whose prime minister visited Gaza on Friday, held meetings with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the emir of Qatar, both Hamas supporters, to discuss what Morsi and other regional leaders have promised would be a more robust response to Israel's actions than during past conflicts. By Saturday night, rumors of Morsi, Erdogan and Hamas chairman Khaled Meshaal hashing out a cease-fire plan were swirling but unconfirmed.

Also in Cairo, the Arab League held an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss an Arab response to the conflict. Many participants called for Arab assistance to the Palestinians and a "reconsideration" of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. But it was unclear if the usually toothless league would deliver decisive action by the end of its summit.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, took his country's case to European leaders. In conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic, Netanyahu argued that "no country in the world would agree to a situation in which its population lives under a constant missile threat," according to a government statement. The Israeli government announced that it was launching a special operations center for public diplomacy, centered on "the unified message that Israel is under fire."

The White House reiterated its support for the Israeli operation, which the military says is intended to stop rocket fire that has escalated in the four years since Israel last invaded Gaza to stunt attacks by Hamas, an Islamist movement that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist group.

"Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rockets for far too long," Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with President Obama to Asia. Rhodes declined to comment on the Israelis' choice of targets, but he said White House officials "always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties."

The death toll in Gaza rose to 45 by Saturday evening, health ministry officials said. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza since the operation began. An Israeli military spokesman said about 130 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel on Saturday, 30 of which were intercepted by a missile-defense system known as Iron Dome.

Israel made preparations this week for a possible ground invasion, but there were no further signs of one coming on Saturday.

- - -

The Israeli airstrikes, which continued to target rocket launching sites and weapons depots, slowed throughout the day, even as Israel appeared to be channeling new efforts toward Hamas civilian institutions. Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman, said the strikes were "part of our overarching goal of toppling Hamas's command and control capabilities" and did not mark a shift in mission.

Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, was apparently not at his office when it was hit.

According to the newspaper Haaretz, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the "goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages."

That is how it felt to Hossam and Sanaa al-Dadah, two teachers who had the misfortune of living next door to the house the Israeli military said belonged to a Hamas commander. At 6 a.m., the family's windows shattered and their walls burst open. The commander's adjacent house, in the Jabaliya refugee camp, had been demolished in an massive airstrike, and suddenly theirs was ruined, too.

In the terrifying moments that followed, Hossam al-Dadah, 50, frantically dug his five children out of the rubble, and a few hours later, they had been taken away to their grandparents' home. But a dust-caked Sanaa al-Dadah, 40, rushed from room to room, crying and gathering her five children's clothing, school bags and dolls and placing them on a sheet.

Israel says Hamas operates in populated areas to use civilians as human shields, and it has dropped thousands of leaflets over Gaza warning civilians to stay away from Hamas operatives. Sanaa al-Dadah said she never got the message.

"Where are we going to go?" she said again and again. "The Israelis are responsible. They are the enemy of God. What did we do? Did we carry any missiles? Did we launch any rockets?"

Outside the house, children played insouciantly in rubble and scorched cars. Rami Mukayed, a 12-year-old in gray trousers, said he reserved his fear for darkness.

"At night, come see me, I'm panicked," he said. "I play in the morning. I hide in the evening."

- - -

In a speech in Cairo, Erdogan said the Gaza conflict called for a new era of Egyptian-Turkish cooperation.

"If Turkey and Egypt unite, everybody will be singing of peace in the region. And if we stick together, the region will no longer be dominated by crying and weeping," he said.

Speakers at the Arab League meeting made the same argument.

"We can no longer accept empty meetings and meaningless resolutions," said Arab League Chief Nabil Elaraby, addressing the assembly at the start of the meeting. He urged Arab states to adopt a "strict stance" on the conflict.

Issandr El Amrani, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations who heads a blog called the Arabist, said the Gaza standoff has presented the new Arab Spring governments and other regional heavyweights an opportunity to reconsider their position on Israel and the peace process, in a series of talks that could have long-term regional implications.

For years, the Arab League has floated a proposal for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that Israel never took seriously, El Amrani said. Arab states might now choose to drop that proposal and adopt more aggressive approaches — Egypt could revise the terms of its peace treaty with Israel; Arab states might consider providing covert aid to Hamas; others will amplify the pressure on Israel through diplomatic corridors, he said.

Yet by Saturday night, despite mounting rhetorical and symbolic support to Gaza's Hamas leadership, the Arab ministers' meeting announced plans to send a delegation to Gaza, but stopped short of pledging immediate material support to Hamas.

"I've seen a lot of talk about doing something, and how there's a collective Arab responsibility to act, but no one has suggested anything concrete," El Amrani said.

- - -

Reyham Abdul-Karim and Islam Abdul-Karim in Gaza City and Ernesto Londono in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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