Three Israelis killed as Hamas launches revenge attacks

Rocket and mortar fire from the Gaza Strip took the lives of three Israelis yesterday, the highest toll since Israel began its devastating bombardment of Gaza on Saturday, while the Israeli Prime Minister's spokesman warned the conflict could "get worse before it gets better."

In their deepest missile attack yet, Palestinian fighters struck Ashdod, 25 miles south of Tel Aviv yesterday evening, killing one woman and wounding five other people. Police spokeswoman Sarit Philipson said the woman was killed at a bus station and Israeli media reports said she had alighted from her car after hearing the siren that warns of incoming rockets.

Another person was killed by a mortar and five people wounded during a separate evening attack on the southern Israeli community of Nahal Oz, while in the morning a medium-range Grad missile fired from the Gaza Strip slammed into a construction site in Ashkelon, seven miles north of the Gaza border, killing an Israeli Arab worker.

The deaths brought the toll from three days of fighting to four on the Israeli side and increased the chances of army ground operations. They highlighted the threat from Hamas fighters even with their leaders in hiding from the Israeli bombing campaign.

Hani al-Mahdi, 27, the Bedouin Arab construction worker, was the first ever fatality in Ashkelon from a missile. The 17 wounded, five of whom were in a serious condition, were also Israeli Arab construction workers.

Another six rockets landed in Ashkelon, said the city's Mayor, Benny Vaknin, one day after Hamas succeeded in extending the range of its missiles by striking near Ashdod, 23 miles north of Gaza. The latest strikes have raised Israeli fears of the Islamic militants reaching deep inside Israel, and Israeli officials are warning that Hamas's rocket range now includes Beersheba, a city 30 miles from Gaza.

The nearby border town of Sderot, the Israeli town most frequently targeted by Hamas rockets, also came under a missile barrage yesterday. Ten people were treated for shock.

Terrified Ashkelon residents emptied the streets and Mr Vaknin said "there is beginning to be real harm to livelihoods". Schools have also been shut down. The harm is dwarfed by the devastation in Gaza, where 315 people have died in Israeli bombings.

Mr Vaknin said that he was the first person on the scene after the rocket struck where a public library was being built. "There was an alarm and I came out after I heard the shell fall. By chance I was only 40 metres away," he said. "It was a very difficult sight. I saw the man who was slain. He was at the entrance to the shelter. I helped lift the wounded on to stretchers."

Fayez Abu Sahiban, the Mayor of the southern Israeli Bedouin Arab city of Rahat, criticised Israel's onslaught while visiting his cousin in Ashkelon's Barzilai hospital who was among the wounded in the construction site attack. "Israel is a strong, sovereign state and it should stop this war. It needs to take into account the innocent civilians in Gaza," he said. "The two peoples are suffering from this war and I call on Israel to stop its bombing in Gaza and the Palestinians to stop their fire at Israel. The two sides need to sit at the table and talk to one another, not to speak with shells. Israel should speak to Hamas with the assistance of Egypt."

Seventeen people have been killed in attacks from Gaza this year, including nine civilians, six of whom died from rockets, and eight soldiers, according to Israel's Foreign Ministry.

Mark Regev, the spokesman for the Israeli Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, said it was known that Hamas had developed longer-range missiles which threatened Israeli cities. "This could get worse before it gets better," he told journalists, adding that although the Israelis had benefited from tactical surprise in launching the offensive on Saturday, the Hamas "military machine" remained in place.

The Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, the Labour leader who is also running for prime minister in elections on 10 February, told parliament yesterday that the Gaza operation had been planned for months. While Mr Regev dismissed suggestions that the timing was connected to the Israeli elections, the leading candidates – Tzipi Livni, the Kadima leader and Foreign Minister, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud contender – have been vying with each other to demonstrate their hawkish positions. "This is not a conflict that Israel sought," he said, adding that Mr Olmert had told Egyptian mediators last week, before Hamas confirmed the end of a six-month ceasefire, that "quiet from Gaza will be answered by quiet from Israel".