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ISRAEL – GAZA STRIP

Israel pummels Gaza in retaliation for Hamas rocket attacks

AFP | Smoke rises after an Israeli air raid in Gaza on Wednesday.

Israeli warplanes launched 160 overnight raids and continued to pound targets in the Gaza Strip Wednesday as a major campaign to stop volleys of Palestinian rocket fire entered its second day, leaving more than 30 people dead and 150 wounded.

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Air raids killed at least 14 people including militants, women and children in the Gaza strip on the second day of Israel's Operation Protective Edge, with the Jewish state not ruling out a ground operation to stop the rocket attacks.

Militants from the Islamist movement Hamas hit back with rocket fire on Israel's major population centres in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in the most serious flare-up over Gaza since November 2012.

As sirens wailed and Israelis ran for cover across the Holy City, three loud explosions were heard and a series of flashes lit the sky to the southwest.

Sirens went off and at least one rocket was shot down by Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile defence system in Tel Aviv.

The Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of Hamas, said it had fired four M75 rockets at Jerusalem, which lies 65 kilometres from the Palestinian enclave.

Israeli media reported missiles hitting the sea off the port city of Haifa, 165 kilometres away, and the army said a rocket did fall on Hadera, 100 kilometres north of Gaza – further than had previously been reached.

Long-range rocket salvo

While the Israelis reported no casualties, the long-range salvo was celebrated by the outgunned Palestinians as proof of their resolve in hostilities that flared three weeks ago after the abduction and murder of three Jewish seminary students.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has demanded Israel "immediately stop" its air campaign and called on the international community to pressure the Jewish state.

"The Palestinian Authority will go to all international organisations to seek protection for the Palestinian people," he said in a televised statement.

Western-backed Abbas, who is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and entered a power-share with Hamas in April after years of feuding, said he had spoken to regional power-broker Egypt about the Gaza crisis.

Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Cairo has secured closures on the Egyptian-Gaza border, increasing economic pressure on Hamas from a long-running Israeli blockade.

Human shield

In Tuesday's worst strike, a missile slammed into a house in the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis, killing eight people and wounding 25, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.

Witnesses said an Israeli drone fired a warning flare, prompting relatives and neighbours to gather at the house as a human shield. But a F-16 warplane fired a missile at the building, levelling it.

Hamas denounced the attack as "a horrendous war crime" and vowed retaliation against "all Israelis".

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, said Israel would "not tolerate the firing of rockets on our cities and towns".

"We have therefore significantly expanded our operations against Hamas and the other terrorist organisations in Gaza," he said in a statement.

"Ground operation" considered

His remarks came after the security cabinet approved the call-up of some 40,000 reservists, as a senior official told AFP the military was preparing all options to stamp out the rocket fire, "including an invasion or a ground operation".

"We have been instructed by the political echelon to hit Hamas hard," military spokesman General Moti Almoz said in an interview with army radio. Two brigades were already stationed around Gaza, with more to join them in coming days.

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The surge in violence along the Gaza border, which is the worst since an eight-day war in 2012 when Tel Aviv was also targeted, followed a chain of events that began with the abduction of three Jewish seminary students in the occupied West Bank on June 12.

Blaming Hamas, which denied a role but praised the abduction, the Israelis arrested hundreds of its activists in their search for the teenagers who were eventually found dead, as was a Palestinian youth abducted in Jerusalem last Wednesday in a suspected revenge murder.

Washington condemned the rocket fire as the "deliberate targeting of civilians" by militants. The European Union also denounced the "indiscriminate" fire from Gaza and the "growing number of civilian casualties... caused by Israeli retaliatory fire" and demanded an immediate ceasefire.

British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Hamas to halt its attacks, while Turkey called for an immediate end to the Israel assault.

The Arab League has called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting on the crisis.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)

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