Over 100 killed in Gaza as rockets fall on Israel
By Aron Heller, The Associated Press
JERUSALEM - The Palestinian death toll from Israel's massive air campaign in Gaza topped 100 people Friday as rockets fired by militants reached deeper into Israel — and for the first time in the fighting, struck from neighbouring Lebanon.
Gaza militants already have fired more than 550 rockets against Israel in the offensive. The Israeli military says it has hit more than 1,100 targets, mostly what it identified as rocket-launching sites, bombarding the territory on average every five minutes.
In Gaza, an Israeli airstrike Friday hit the home of a well-known Islamic Jihad leader. Gaza health officials said strikes overnight killed a total of eight people, raising the death toll to at least 98. A later strike pushed the tally over 100 to go along with some 670 wounded, officials said.
In the southern Gaza city of Rafah, residents sifted through the remains of a four-story building that was struck and scattered for cover as another airstrike landed nearby.
Rocket fire continued in earnest from Gaza toward various locations in southern and central Israel, including toward Israel's international airport. The commercial centre of Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion airport also heard warning sirens Friday but these rockets were intercepted and there was no disturbance to Israel's air traffic. Hamas says it intends to fire rockets at the airport and warned foreign airlines to stop flying to Israel.
Israel has shot down at least 110 incoming rockets thus far with its "Iron Dome" defence system.
Gaza rocket fire struck a gas station in southern Israel, seriously wounding one person and sending large plumes of smoke into the air.
In northern Israel, rocket fire struck near the Lebanese border and the military responded with artillery fire toward the source in southern Lebanon, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said.
The Lebanese military said militants there fired three rockets toward Israel around 6 a.m. (0300 GMT) and the Israelis retaliated by firing about 25 artillery shells on the area.
Lebanon's state-run National News Agency said that one of the militants firing the rockets was wounded and rushed to a hospital. The Lebanese military said troops found two rocket launchers and dismantled them.
Southern Lebanon is a stronghold of the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which has battled Israel numerous times. However, recent fire from Lebanon has been blamed on radical Palestinian factions in the area and Hezbollah has not been involved in the ongoing offensive.
A pair of Lebanon-based al-Qaida-linked groups, the Battalions of Ziad Jarrah and the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, has claimed responsibility in the past for similar rocket attacks on Israel.
Israel launched the Gaza offensive to stop incessant rocket fire that erupted after three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank and a Palestinian teenager was abducted and burned to death in an apparent reprisal attack.
Lerner said the military was doing its utmost to prevent civilian casualties, calling inhabitants ahead of time to warn of imminent attacks. He said Israeli forces also fire "non-explosive munitions" at roofs as a warning and looks for people to leave before destroying a structure.
Lerner blamed Hamas for the death of innocent bystanders by firing from heavily populated areas.
Israel's military "uses its weapons to defend its civilians. Hamas uses its civilians to defend its weapons," he said.
Military chief Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz said Hamas was "sinking into its own disaster," while Israel was deploying its military might "not without reasoning, not without thinking, not without taking into account there are civilians in Gaza."
Israeli leaders are mulling whether to launch a ground assault in Gaza to target Hamas. Such a move, though, would likely involve a rise in Palestinian civilian casualties and put Israeli troops at risk as well. Israel has mobilized more than 30,000 reservists to supplement the potential ground operation.
During a ground incursion in early 2009, hundreds of civilians were killed and both sides drew war crimes accusations in a United Nations report.
Middle East envoy Tony Blair said efforts were being made to try and reach a truce.
"We are in a critical point," he said. "I think we have got to do everything we can to ... create a situation in which the people in Gaza and the West Bank and in Israel feel that this is not then going to recur and there is some genuine plan in place."
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut and Najib Jobain in Gaza City, Gaza Strip, contributed to this report.