AT LEAST 38 people were reportedly killed as Israel stepped up its offensive in the Gaza Strip amid warnings of an imminent ground invasion.
The military said it struck about 200 Hamas targets yesterday on the second day of its offensive, which it said is needed to end rocket attacks out of Gaza.
Militants, however, continued to fire rocket salvos deep into Israeli territory and Israel mobilised thousands of troops along the Gaza border ahead of a possible ground operation.
The situation deteriorated last week after the bodies of three Israeli teenagers were found, followed a day later by the abduction of a Palestinian teenager in Jerusalem, who was later found burned to death in what Palestinians believe was a revenge attack.
Yesterday, a United States official claimed the Israeli teenagers were shot at least ten times with a silenced gun in what appeared to be premeditated killings.
“The army is ready for all possibilities,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after holding a meeting of his security cabinet.
“Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing towards Israeli citizens. The security of Israel’s citizens comes first. The operation will expand and continue until the fire toward our towns stops and quiet returns.”
Egypt, which often serves as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, said it was in contact with both sides to end the violence. It was the first indication since the offensive was launched on Tuesday that ceasefire efforts might be under way.
The offensive has set off the heaviest fighting between Israel and the Islamist militant group Hamas since an eight-day battle in November 2012.
Israel said it aims to quash Hamas’ militant capabilities and to quell rocket fire. Its leaders warned that a ground invasion could be imminent.
Israel’s intelligence minister Yuval Steinitz said: “Despite the fact it will be hard, complicated and costly, we will have to take over Gaza temporarily, for a few weeks, to cut off the strengthening of this terror army.
“If you ask my humble opinion, a significant operation like this is approaching.”
The government has authorised the army to activate up to 40,000 reservists for a ground operation.
Since Tuesday, Israel has attacked 560 sites in Gaza, killing at least 38 people, the army said. Militants have fired more than 160 rockets at Israel.
A Gaza official said at least 14 people were killed in yesterday’s air strikes, including two militants.
An 80-year-old woman was among the dead. In all, 35 Palestinians have been killed.
A Hamas spokesman said Israel had “crossed all the red lines” and warned that Hamas would strike back fiercely. “What the resistance showed today is only part of what it is capable of,” he said.
Israel and Hamas are bitter enemies and have fought numerous times over the years. Until recently they had been observing a truce that ended the previous hostilities in 2012.
Yesterday’s claim that the death of the three Israeli teenagers was premeditated was contrary to speculation by some Israeli and Palestinian commentators that the captors intended to take hostages for a prisoner exchange but panicked and shot them.
The killing of the three Jewish seminary students followed the collapse of US-brokered peace talks in April.
One of them, 16-year-old Naftali Fraenkel, also held American citizenship.
Israeli police believe the killings led far-right Jews to kidnap and burn to death a Palestinian youth – Mohammed Abu Khdeir – in revenge, and the incident also contributed to the eruption of the clashes in the Gaza Strip.
Missing since hitch-hiking home on 12 June, the teenagers’ bodies were discovered on 30 June. Israel blamed Hamas for their deaths but the Palestinian Islamist group has neither confirmed nor denied the allegation.
One of the three Israelis, Gilad Shaar, 16, telephoned police and said “They’ve kidnapped me!” after Mr Shaar, Mr Fraenkel and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrah got into a car which investigators suspect was driven by a Hamas militant posing as a religious Jew. A second disguised gunman sat in the front passenger seat.
A US official said the FBI, whose mandate includes Americans abducted abroad, received a recording of the distress call from Israel within days and sent it for audio analysis.
Distorted, tinny reports heard on the tape after an Arabic- accented male voice shouts “Head down!” in response to Mr Shaar’s attempt to raise the alarm were found to be consistent with shots from a silenced firearm, the US official said.
“There were ten gunshots,” added the official.
The use of a silencer led US investigators to believe the captors planned to kill the three teenagers from the outset.