Israel bombed rocket launching sites, weapons depots and other locations in the Gaza Strip for a second day on Thursday, as missile fire from the Palestinian territory continued unabated and the death toll on both sides of the border rose to at least 18, officials said.
The violence — by far the most intense since Israel’s invasion of Gaza nearly four years ago — drew condemnation from countries around the globe, with the United States denouncing Hamas for firing rockets on civilian targets in Israel, and Middle Eastern leaders focusing their ire on the Jewish state.
Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi ordered his prime minister to lead a delegation to Gaza to show support for the Palestinians, the Associated Press reported. “The Israelis must realize that this aggression is unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region,” Morsi told his nation in a televised address.
White House spokesman Jay Carney, meanwhile, said there is “no justification” for the rocket attacks by Hamas, which has governed Gaza since 2006. He called on those responsible to immediately stop the “cowardly acts.”
Fifteen Palestinians — eight of them civilians, according to news services — have been killed by the Israeli air strikes, which started Wednesday with the assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari.
Israel said the offensive was an attempt to halt rocket fire from inside Gaza, which had escalated last weekend. But the air strikes instead triggered new waves of rocket launches, which rained down on towns and villages in southern Israel Wednesday night and Thursday.
One struck a direct hit on the top floor of a four-story apartment building in this modest town near Ashkelon. Two men and one woman were killed, Israeli officials said, and an 11-month-old baby was critically injured. Three Israeli soldiers also were wounded in rocket attacks.
In addition to those killed in Gaza, more than 120 Palestinians, including many civilians, have been injured in the Israeli offensive, Health Ministry officials said. Three of the Palestinian militants killed were hit as they rode a motorbike in the Khan Yunis refugee camp, officials said. Jabari was killed when a bomb hit his car.
Israel’s military said it had targeted more than 200 “terror activity” sites inside Gaza since Wednesday, including weapons depots and rocket-launching squads and locations, and had intercepted more than 80 rockets using the “Iron Dome” missile defense system.
At the same time, more than 180 rockets have landed across southern Israel, Israeli police spokesman Mickey Rosenfeld said. Some reached as far north as Rishon Letzion, Holon and Bat Yam, a few miles south of Tel Aviv, officials and Israeli media reported.
Incoming rocket warnings are being broadcast regularly on Israel Radio, breaking into programming whenever a rocket launch is detected and announcing which town’s or city’s residents should take cover.
Army officials said warning sirens were heard in Tel Aviv itself, but no rocket landed there. They would not say whether a missile headed for Tel Aviv had been intercepted.
Israeli officials said a ground assault on Gaza is possible if the rocket attacks do not subside. Rosenfeld said the next 24 to 48 hours will be “critical.”
All day Thursday, plumes of smoke rose from bombed-out sites in and around Gaza City, while outgoing rockets left vapor trails and military jets screamed past overhead. Funerals were held for four small children killed in the air strikes, Reuters reported.
The bloodshed has significantly increased tensions in a volatile region that over the last two years has seen extensive political upheaval and realignment.
Morsi said he had called on the Cairo-based Arab League to convene an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers. He said he had also called President Obama, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton seeking international intervention in the conflict.
In a statement Wednesday, the U.S. State Department urged Israel to “take every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” but also criticized Hamas for the rocket campaign and said Washington supports “Israel’s right to defend itself.”
“We strongly condemn the barrage of rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel, and we regret the death and injury of innocent Israeli and Palestinian civilians caused by the ensuing violence,” the statement said. “Hamas claims to have the best interests of the Palestinian people at heart, yet it continues to engage in violence that is counterproductive to the Palestinian cause.”
Cairo withdrew its ambassador to Tel Aviv in response to the Israeli offensive. Egypt’s Foreign Ministry updated its Facebook page with a picture of the Palestinian flag and warned that violence could soon “escalate out of control.”
But leading Egyptian politicians and activists, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood, which helped put Morsi in power, said those measures were insufficient. “We called on Morsi to cut off all diplomatic and commercial ties with Israel and to urge all Arab and Muslim countries to do the same,” said Mahmoud Ghozlan, a high-ranking leader of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Newspaper headlines warned of an imminent regional war that could engulf Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.
Syria and Lebanon also denounced Israel and, like Morsi, called on the international community to intervene.
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which has killed thousands of its citizens since 2011 in a brutal effort to contain a widespread revolt, condemned the “barbaric, reprehensible crimes committed by the Israeli army against the Palestinian people in Gaza,” the official Syrian Arab News Agency reported.
Many observers in Lebanon watched for a reaction from Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group and party that fought the Israeli military to a standstill in a bloody conflict in 2006. The group has traditionally had close ties with Hamas, though the conflict in Syria has led to a split, with Hezbollah supporting Assad’s government and Hamas leaders supporting the opposition.
In Iran, the death toll in Gaza, which has been governed by Hamas since 2006, was a top story on state-run media all day Thursday. Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian called Jabari’s killing and the continued shelling “cowardly” and warned that “the new players and atmosphere in the region will deprive the criminal Zionists of the opportunity for any aggression.”
In Gaza, Israeli jets and drones hit dozens of targets overnight, Israeli military officials said. Residents said militants had begun firing at Israeli targets from inside teeming Gaza City, raising the risk for civilians if Israel targeted those launch locations.
“We are at the start of the event and not at its end,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said, pledging to do “whatever is necessary to restore quiet to the south.”
Representatives of Hamas, which Israel and the United States consider a terrorist organization, said they also have no intention of backing down. The assassination of Jabari “is a serious crime, and they crossed the red line,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman. “It’s time to declare war.”
Inside Gaza, the streets were quiet, save for a rush of the injured to local hospitals after each air strike, and lines at some bakeries, gas stations and food shops.
Hamas officials announced a ban on price increases and tried to reassure residents that there were ample supplies of food and gas.
But the Health Ministry said there were shortages of medicine and medical supplies, and it reported that hospitals had used the equivalent of a month’s worth of emergency supplies since the Israeli assault began Wednesday.