JERUSALEM —Â Israel moved closer to anÂ all-out ground war with Hamas Thursday, as Israeli planes, tanks and gunboatsÂ pounded suspected militant positions in Gaza in retaliation for another day ofÂ Hamas rocket attacks that left at least three Israelis dead.
Tel Aviv residents say they heard an explosion following an air-raid alertÂ across the city, raising fears of a Gaza rocket strike on Israel’s commercialÂ capital.
Israeli authorities were trying to determine where the rocket may have landedÂ on Thursday. Eli Bean, the head of Israel’s rescue service, says no injuriesÂ have been reported.
Israeli military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai says nothing landed onÂ the ground, raising the possibility it fell in the sea.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters on Thursday that IsraelÂ could no longer stand repeated attacks on its southern towns. He said thatÂ Israel has “made it clear” it won’t tolerate continued rocket fire on itsÂ civilians.
Earlier, Netanyahu had declared, “If there is a need, the military isÂ prepared to expand the operation. We will continue to do everything to protectÂ our citizens.”
Egypt’s Islamist president has ordered his prime minister to lead a seniorÂ delegation to Gaza in a show of support for the coastal strip’s Hamas rulers inÂ the face of Israel’s offensive.
State television said Thursday that, on orders from President Mohammed Morsi,Â Hesham Kandil will go to Gaza Friday. It said the delegation will also try andÂ meet the “urgent needs” of Gaza residents.
Earlier on Thursday, Morsi vowed to work to stop Israel’s campaign againstÂ Hamas, calling the Jewish state’s actions there “unacceptable.”
The casualties were the first since Israel launched its operation onÂ Wednesday with the assassination of Hamas’ top military commander.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said two Israeli men and a woman died afterÂ a rocket struck their four-story apartment building in the southern Israeli townÂ of Kiryat Malachi. A 4-year-old boy was seriously wounded and two babiesÂ slightly injured in the strike.
Since the Israeli operation started, a total of 15 Palestinians, includingÂ four civilians, have been killed and more than 100 people wounded, according toÂ Palestinian medical officials. Among the dead were two children.
The operation, launched after days of rocket fire from the coastal territory,Â was Israel’s most intense attack on Gaza since its full-scale war there fourÂ years ago.
The Israeli military said the some 20 airstrikes were part of a majorÂ offensive dubbed “Operation Pillar of Defense,” according to a ReutersÂ report.
Israeli officials said Wednesday that a ground invasion was a strongÂ possibility in the coming days if Hamas didn’t rein in the rocket fire.Â Mid-morning Thursday, there was no sign such an invasion might be beginning. ButÂ the Israeli military was cleared to call up special reserve units — a sign theÂ operation might broaden.
“The military will continue acting to establish deterrence against Hamas andÂ to return the calm,” Defense Minister Ehud Barak said during a tour of southernÂ Israel. He praised citizens for coping with the “tough moments to come.”
Gaza schools were ordered closed until the operation ends, and most of theÂ territory’s 1.6 million people hunkered down close to home, venturing out onlyÂ to buy food, fuel and other basic supplies.
Hamas announced a state of emergency in Gaza, evacuating all its securityÂ buildings and deploying its troops away from their locations.
Israeli aircraft dropped leaflets on several locations in Gaza earlyÂ Thursday, warning Gazans to stay away from Hamas, other militants and theirÂ facilities.
The Israeli military said Hamas fighters and other militant factions,Â undeterred by the air attacks, bombarded southern Israel with with at least 150Â rockets after the operation began. Israel’s newly deployed Iron Dome missileÂ defense system, developed as a response to the short-range rockets from Gaza,Â intercepted two dozen of them, military spokeswoman Lt. Col. Avital LeibovichÂ said.
Israel declared a state of emergency in the country’s south, where more thanÂ 1 million Israelis live within rocket range, instructing people to remain closeÂ to fortified areas.
People living in areas along the frontier were ordered to stay home fromÂ work, save for essential services, and shopping centers were closed. IsraeliÂ police stepped up patrols around the country, fearing Hamas could retaliate withÂ bombing attacks far from the reaches of Gaza.
Batya Katar, a resident of Sderot, a community that has been a frequentÂ target of rocket fire, said streets were empty there.
“People won’t be outside. The minute they assassinated the Hamas militaryÂ chief we knew an offensive had begun. We were waiting for it, and it’s aboutÂ time they did it. We have the right to live like other countries in theÂ world.”
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas cut short a trip to Europe to deal with theÂ crisis surrounding Israel’s military operation, according to Saeb Erekat,Â an aide to Abbas.
Erekat harshly condemned Israel’s military operation, saying the PalestiniansÂ “hold Israel fully responsible for the consequences of this act ofÂ aggression.”
Few in the Palestinian territory’s largest urban area, Gaza City, came outÂ following the call for dawn prayers on Thursday, and the only vehicles plyingÂ the streets were ambulances and media cars.
About 400 angry mourners braved the streets, however, to bury HamasÂ mastermind Ahmed Jabari, whose body was draped in the green flag of the IslamicÂ militant Hamas movement. Some fired guns in the air and chanted, “God is Great,Â the revenge is coming.”
When the body was brought into a mosque for funeral prayers, some tried toÂ touch or kiss it. Others cried. Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to beÂ killed since the last war in Gaza ended in early 2009. He has long toppedÂ Israel’s most-wanted list, blamed for a string of deadly attacks, including theÂ kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006.
The Israeli military said its aircraft targeted more than 20 facilities thatÂ served as storage or launching sites for rockets. Among the weapons destroyedÂ were rockets that could hit as far as 25 miles into Israel.
The conflict has deepened the instability gripping the Middle East. CairoÂ recalled its ambassador in response to the military operation, which began justÂ days after Israel was drawn into Syria’s civil war for the first time.
In a statement read on state TV late Wednesday, spokesman Yasser Ali saidÂ that President Mohammed Morsi recalled the ambassador and asked the ArabÂ League’s Secretary General to convene an emergency ministerial meeting in theÂ wake of the Gaza violence.
Israel and Egypt signed a peace accord in 1979. Relations, never warm, haveÂ deteriorated since longtime Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was ousted in aÂ popular uprising last year.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr spoke with U.S. Secretary ofÂ State Hillary Rodham Clinton late Wednesday, asking for “immediate U.S.Â intervention to stop the Israeli aggression,” the ministry said in aÂ statement.
Amr told Clinton that if Israel’s offensive does not stop, “matters willÂ escalate out of control” and asked the U.S. “to use what contacts it has withÂ Israel.”
In Washington, the United States lined up behind Israel. “We support Israel’sÂ right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effortÂ to avoid civilian casualties,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
Spokesman Jay Carney says there is “no justification” for the violenceÂ perpetrated by Hamas and other terrorist organizations. And he called on thoseÂ responsible to immediately stop the “cowardly acts.”
President Obama spoke with Netanyahu and the two men agreed Hamas needs toÂ stop its attacks on Israel to allow tensions to ease, the White House said.
Obama spoke separately to Morsi, given Egypt’s central role in preservingÂ regional security, the White House said. The two men agreed on the need toÂ de-escalate the conflict as quickly as possible.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for calm and urged both sides toÂ respect international humanitarian law.
On Wednesday night, the U.N. Security Council met behind closed doors toÂ consider an Egyptian request for an emergency meeting on Israel’s militaryÂ action in Gaza. The Palestinians asked the council to act to stop theÂ operation.
For the past four years, Israel and Hamas have largely observed an informalÂ truce. But in recent weeks, the calm has unraveled in a bout of rocket attacksÂ from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. From Israel’s perspective, HamasÂ escalated the situation with two specific attacks in recent days: an explosionÂ in a tunnel along the Israeli border and a missile attack on an Israeli militaryÂ jeep that seriously wounded four soldiers.
Outside the hospital where Jabari’s body was taken, Hamas official KhalilÂ al-Haya eulogized the commander and threatened Israel.
“The battle between us and the occupation is open and it will end only withÂ the liberation of Palestine and Jerusalem,” he said.
Thousands of angry Gazans chanted “Retaliation” and “We want you to hit TelÂ Aviv tonight.”
Witnesses said Jabari was traveling in a vehicle in Gaza City when the carÂ exploded. Crowds of people and security personnel rushed to the scene of theÂ strike, trying to put out the fire that had engulfed the car and left it aÂ charred shell. The Israeli military released a grainy, black-and-white video ofÂ the airstrike. It shows a sedan moving slowly along a road before exploding in aÂ powerful blast that sent a large piece of the car flying into the air.
Dovish Israeli lawmaker Dov Hanin condemned the killing.
“Assassinating leaders is never the solution. In place of the leaders killed,Â others will grow, and we will only get another cycle of fire and blood,” heÂ said.
Source: Fox News