A massive wave of Israeli air strikes, launched yesterday against Hamas in Gaza, has killed at least 227 people – the highest death toll in a single day in the territory since the end of the 1967 Six Day War.
Warplanes and combat helicopters launched their ferocious assault on the Islamic faction's security compounds and rocket launching pads in what Israel said was a response to about 470 Qassam missiles and mortars, launched from Hamas-controlled Gaza since a five-month ceasefire began to break down in November.
The sudden and unexpected strikes, the start of an operation which the Israeli Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, warned "won't be easy and won't be short", sent thick plumes of black smoke rising above Gaza City and triggered panic in some districts as parents frantically searched for children rushing home from school.
Hospitals rapidly filled up with as many as 700 wounded, and the chief of Hamas's police in Gaza, Tawfiq Jabber, was reported to be among the dead. More than a dozen bodies of uniformed officers from his force lay on the ground at Gaza City's main security compound shortly after the strikes.
Television pictures showed wounded officers writhing in pain after the strikes hit at least one compound where a passing-out ceremony was being held for recent recruits. Across Gaza the wounded were ferried to local hospitals in cars, vans and ambulances.
Hamas said that Israel had also bombed a mosque in Gaza City. Two people were said to have been killed in the attack.
The air strikes were part of an operation codenamed "Cast Lead" by the Israel Defence Forces after the cabinet gave outline approval for military retaliation last Wednesday, during a week that saw a total of 283 Qassam and mortar attacks aimed at communities in southern Israel.
Mr Barak, who in past months has resisted calls for a full-scale invasion of Gaza, warned at a news conference yesterday that the operation would be "broadened and deepened as necessary". And in a clear warning to Israeli communities surrounding Gaza, which were placed on high alert against an escalation of rocket attacks, he declared: "It won't be easy and it won't be short. Fortitude will be needed to change the situation in the south."
In a television interview with Fox News, Mr Barak, speaking from Tel Aviv, rejected calls by the UN and the EU for a truce. "For us to be asked to have a ceasefire with Hamas is like asking you to have a ceasefire with al-Qa'ida," he said. "It's something that we cannot really accept."
As the operation continued after dark last night, with strikes on Hamas targets in southern Gaza, Mr Barak said: "The time has come to act. We are not happy, but not deterred. We will not let the terror harm our citizens and soldiers, and we will do everything that is necessary. There is a time for calming and a time for fighting, and now the time for fighting has come."
Israel "had no intention", he added, of allowing rocket attacks to continue. The purpose of the operation was "to deal a harsh blow to Hamas and change the situation from its foundation, to bring about that there will not be fire or other operations from Gaza".
The Defence Minister did not immediately specify whether the operation would include ground operations, though a senior Israeli security official said later that the use of "all tools" in the operation – including ground forces – was possible as it continued. However, Mr Barak did tell Fox News: "If boots on the ground will be needed, they will be there."
As Gaza militants launched about 50 retaliatory mortars and rockets, including longer range Grads, at western Negev Israeli communities, a 50-year-old man was killed in the town of Netivot by one rocket, and at least four others were wounded in the attacks. The Israeli death was the first since the end of the ceasefire. Another rocket hit the Israeli town of Kiryat Gat for the first time, and the streets of Sderot, the Israeli border town which has borne the brunt of rocket attacks emptied after the air strikes.
There was no immediate estimate of how many of the Palestinians killed in yesterday's air strikes – which came on the Jewish Sabbath but what is the first day of the normal Palestinian working week in Gaza – were civilians. Later, some of the dead, rolled in blankets, were laid out on the floor of Gaza's main hospital for identification. Earlier in the day, Hamas police spokesman Ehad Ghussein said that about 140 Hamas security forces had been killed.
A senior Israeli security official said last night that the operation had used "precision weapons"; only a "minor" number of civilians had been killed, he believed, and the majority of the dead had been Hamas personnel, he added.
Although the ceasefire did not halt the rockets, it had largely held until 4 November, when the attacks from Gaza resumed after a unit of Israeli troops entered southern Gaza, killing several militants, in what it said was an operation to destroy tunnels freshly dug to enable the kidnap of Israeli soldiers.
Hamas had earlier failed to secure the opening of commercial crossings into Gaza – other than for basic humanitarian goods – in return for the ceasefire. The group announced on 18 December that it would not renew the truce after the agreed six months. Its militants then launched last week's repeated barrages of attacks.
There have been constant calls in Israel for tougher action against Hamas in Gaza in retaliation for the rocket attacks, which the military says total 3,000 over the whole year. Israel's outgoing Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, issued a last-ditch appeal on the Arab TV station Al Arabiya on Thursday for a halt to the rocket fire.
One Gazan bystander, Said Masri, 57, sat on the ground near one of the bombarded security compounds yesterday, alternately slapping his face and covering his head with dust from the ruins of the building. He told Associated Press that he had sent his nine-year-old son out to buy cigarettes minutes before the air strike and could not now find him. "May I burn like the cigarettes, may Israel burn," he wailed. One doctor at Gaza City's main Shifa hospital told AP: "We are treating people on the floor, in the corridors. We have no more space. We don't know who is here and what the priority is to treat."
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, who has been in charge only in the West Bank since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007, said the President "condemns this aggression" and called for restraint. But Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, speaking on a Gaza radio station, declared: "Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood." There were protest demonstrations against the air strikes in the West Bank and Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.
A statement from the office of Ehud Olmert said that the operation had been approved by the Prime Minister and by Mr Barak and the Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni.
The statement added: "The operation was launched following the violation of the terms of the lull by Hamas and the unceasing attacks by Hamas authorities on Israeli civilians in the south of the country. Israel wishes to make clear that it will continue to act against terrorist operations and missile fire from the Strip which is intended to harm civilians."
The family of the Palestinian journalist Mohammed Dawass was caught up in the bombardment yesterday as Mr Dawass was on his way to take three of his children to school from their seventh-floor apartment. "I got into the lift to get the car ready and it stopped at the sixth floor because of a power cut. I was rescued by the doorman and then rushed to the window to see four or five bombings. We didn't hear the planes come. It was a complete shock."
Kemal Mohammed, 41, a construction worker now unemployed because of the economic embargo on Gaza, said he believed the decision to launch the air strikes had been decided "to destroy Hamas" at last week's meeting between Ms Livni and Egypt's President, Hosni Mubarak. He added: "Thank you Livni. Thank you Egypt."
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How the world reacted
Gordon Brown "I am deeply concerned by continuing missile strikes from Gaza on Israel and by Israel's response today. I call on Gazan militants to cease all rocket attacks on Israel immediately. I understand the Israeli government's sense of obligation to its population. Israel needs to meet its humanitarian obligations, act in a way to further the long-term vision of a two-state solution, and do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties."
Condoleezza Rice, US Secretary of State "The United States strongly condemns the repeated rocket and mortar attacks against Israel and holds Hamas responsible for breaking the ceasefire and for the renewal of violence in Gaza. The ceasefire should be restored immediately. The US calls on all concerned to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the innocent people of Gaza."
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon "[I am] deeply alarmed by today's heavy violence and bloodshed... [I also condemn] the ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants and [I am] deeply distressed that repeated calls on Hamas for these attacks to end have gone unheeded."
Russian Foreign Ministry "Moscow deems it necessary to stop large-scale military action against Gaza, which had already led to big casualties and suffering among the civilian Palestinian population. At the same time we call on the Hamas leadership to stop shelling Israeli territory."
Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa "We are facing a continuing spectacle which has been carefully planned. So we have to expect that there will be many casualties. We face a major humanitarian catastrophe."
Iranian Foreign Ministry "Iran strongly condemns the Zionist regime's wide-ranging attacks against the civilians in Gaza."
President Assad of Syria "Syria is following with great anxiety the barbaric Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people ... a horrific crime and terrorist act."
The Israeli side
The Israeli Prime Minister is due to step down after an election in February. He appears to be attempting to bequeath his successor a Gaza in which Hamas's grip has been weakened.
As Labour Party leader and Defence Minister, he takes cabinet responsibility for the assault on Gaza. Whether this will boost Labour's weak position in the polls before the election remains to be seen.
The Foreign Minister is in Mr Olmert's Kadima Party and wants to succeed him as Prime Minister. She argued that Israel needed to step up operations because of the rocket attacks by Palestinians.
The Hamas side
The Hamas Prime Minister in Gaza is thought to be more pragmatic than his colleagues and therefore to be under constant pressure from more militant elements. He supported the ceasefire.
Though seen as Hamas leader from 2004, he was named Foreign Minister in the Hamas government elected in 2006, allowing Mr Haniyeh to become Prime Minister instead.
Head of Hamas's military wing in northern Gaza, and presumed leader of the Qassam rocket brigades, whose continued ability to fire missiles of increasing range into Israel triggered yesterday's strikes.
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