In the heaviest fighting in the Gaza Strip in nearly two years, Israel launched dozens of air raids Tuesday as it edged closer to a ground invasion to halt incoming Palestinian rocket attacks.
Israel is prepared for a campaign against Hamas militants in Gaza that “will not end within days,” its defense chief, Moshe Ya'alon, said in a statement. Its security cabinet also authorized the military to call up 40,000 reservists in addition to the 1,500 already mobilized.
Israel, Gaza, West Bank map
The Israeli army said its air attacks, part of an assault it called "Operation Protective Edge," struck more than 100 sites, including houses and rocket launch sites. Palestinian officials said the air attacks killed at least 19 people, including three children.
Islamist militants continued to bombard Israel, with at least one rocket landing in the northern city of Hadera, some 100 kilometers from Gaza, Israeli officials said it was the farthest a rocket from Gaza has reached into Israel.
Air-raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv, and the Jerusalem Post reported that Israel intercepted an incoming rocket over the capital city.
Israel reported no casualties in the unprecedented attack.
In another skirmish, Israel said it killed four Hamas militants who landed on a Mediterranean Sea beach in southern Israel near Gaza and attacked a military base.
The West weighs in
In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest condemned the Hamas rocket attacks and defended Israel's right to defend itself.
“We strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire into Israel and the deliberate targeting of civilians by terrorist organizations in Gaza,” Earnest said. “No country can accept rocket fire aimed at civilians, and we support Israel's right to defend itself against these vicious attacks.''
The European Union condemned the “indiscriminate” rocket firing into Israel and the Jewish state’s retaliatory firing, saying in a statement that “the safety and security of all civilians must be of paramount importance.” It called for an immediate cease-fire.
A show of force
Israeli tanks were seen massing near the Gaza border, and a military spokesman said the army was recruiting reserve troops for a potential ground mission.
Israeli President Shimon Peres said his country has no choice but to respond to the Hamas rockets fired into southern Israel.
"Hamas was offered by the quartet to stop shooting, recognize Israel, declare that you are for peace and you will be legitimized. They refused all the three,” Peres said.
“Instead, they cut tunnels, to shoot rockets, and they are shooting … hundreds [of] rockets during the night. Against whom? Against civilian people. There is no way to compromise between death and life. There is no way to compromise between peace and war," he added.
Teens’ abductions fueled conflict
Violence flared on the Israel-Gaza border last month after Israel arrested hundreds of Hamas activists in the occupied West Bank following the disappearance there of three Israeli youths on June 12.
Tensions escalated last week when the bodies of the teens – Naftali Frankel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach – were discovered near the southern West Bank city of Hebron on June 30. Two days later, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian Arab, was kidnapping outside his family home. His burned body was found later that morning. Israeli authorities have arrested six suspects, saying they had nationalist motives and belong to an extremist Jewish group.
Both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have condemned the killings and vowed to punish those responsible.
Israeli investigators said Monday that three of the suspects accused of killing Khdeir have confessed to the crime and re-enacted it for authorities.
It is believed Khdeir was killed to avenge the Israeli teens’ deaths.
Israel blames Hamas for the Israeli youths’ deaths. Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility in the abduction and killings.
Reprisal rocket attacks
Israel said the offensive was a response to a wave of rocket attacks by the Islamic militant group Hamas, which rules Gaza.
The Israeli military said that in the past 24 hours, Palestinians had fired more than 100 rockets at Israel, a sharp increase. Some were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system and none that landed caused fatalities, although two people were wounded by shrapnel.
“Over the last few weeks, hundreds of such rockets have been fired," government spokesman Mark Regev said. "We have repeatedly warned Hamas that this must stop. And the Israel Defense Forces are currently acting to put an end to this once and for all.”
Call for calm
Abbas, the Palestinian president, called on Israel to halt the airstrikes immediately and appealed for calm.
“The Palestinian leadership is conducting intensive and urgent contacts with regional and international parties to stop the escalation,” Abbas said.
Abbas, however, has little influence over a Gaza Strip, the Associated Press reported.
Hamas took control of Gaza in 2007, and despite a recent unity deal that ostensibly handed control back to Abbas, the militant group remains the dominant power there.
Smaller and more radical forces than Hamas are also involved in rocket fire from Gaza, according to AP.
Hamas, which admits an escalation in its rocket assault, said it will not be intimidated by Israeli bombs.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said the Palestinian people have the right to resist and defend themselves against what he described as Israeli “aggression.”
He added the “occupation will pay a heavy price for its crimes.”
U.S. President Barack Obama is urging Israelis and Palestinians to "act with reasonableness and restraint" at what he called a dangerous moment between the two sides.
In an article published Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Obama said the two sides must protect the innocent and not use "vengeance and retribution."
Obama also said he still believes it is possible for Israel and the Palestinians to achieve peace, calling that the only path to security in Israel.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday that Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken with leaders from both sides in recent days, reiterating the need to reduce tensions and violence.
"Anytime there are rocket attacks into Israel, we certainly condemn those and we would do so in this case as well,” Psaki said. “And there's no place for violence and increasing tension as we're seeing on the ground. We don't feel that's productive to a peaceful society."
Robert Berger contributed to this report from Jerusalem. Some information for this report provided by Reuters and AP.