ISRAELI planes pounding the Gaza Strip in an offensive against Hamas rocket fire expanded their target range yesterday, flattening a two-storey house in a residential district of Gaza City, killing at least 11 civilians.
The attack was the single deadliest incident of the five-day-old Israeli operation.
The air strike targeted the home of the Daloo family in Gaza City’s Nasser neighbourhood, reducing it to rubble. Five women, including an 80-year-old, and four small children were among the dead, said Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra.
The Israeli military said the target of the attack was a top rocket mastermind of the Islamic Jihad militant group. The claim could not be verified, and Mr al-Kidra said the two men killed were also civilians.
Missiles continued to rain on southern Israel with no immediate ceasefire forthcoming last night.
With Israeli troops and armoured vehicles on standby around Gaza, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu told ministers that the military operation, which started last Wednesday with the assassination of Hamas military chief Ahmed Jaabari, could be “significantly expanded”.
That means the conflict could lead to an all-out ground incursion of the crowded coastal enclave.
There were, however, hopes of a possible diplomatic solution, with an Israeli envoy arriving in Cairo to start talks with Egyptian officials on the crisis.
United States president Barack Obama, meanwhile, signalled his preference that Israel avoid a ground operation. He told reporters: “Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired on to its territory. If that can be accomplished without the ramping-up of military activity, that’s preferable.”
Mr Obama has asked Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi to use his influence to restrain Hamas, saying a further escalation would dim prospects for peace talks that would create a Palestinian state.
Yesterday was the deadliest day in Gaza since the start of what Operation Pillar of Cloud. There were reports that an air strike on a three-storey home in the northern town of Beit Lahiya killed a three-year-old girl and a five-year-old boy from the same family, one that has members involved in rocket squads.
Another strike in Gaza City flattened the home of a family reportedly known for its support of Hamas, killing three women and a fourth civilian, according to health officials.
Another air strike destroyed a house near a police station. Rescue workers pulled out the body of a woman, along with several surviving members of her family. A missile strike on a car in the Shati refugee camp killed a Hamas militant and an 11-year-old girl passer-by.
Last night, there were reports that 28 people had died in Gaza.
Militants continued to target Israel, as far as Tel Aviv, even though this increased the likelihood of a ground invasion. Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepted a rocket en route to the commercial capital, officials said.
A rocket damaged a home in the coastal city of Ashkelon, and eight Israelis were reported wounded in southern targets.
Two booms, apparently from Iron Dome, were heard yesterday afternoon as Palestinian militants targeted the city of Beersheba.
“The missiles don’t distinguish between Arab and Jew,” said mayor Faez Abu Sehban.
Some of the rockets from Gaza have had most of their weight removed from their warheads to maximise range, an Israeli security official said yesterday. “They are pipes basically.”
The militant Islamist group is reportedly demanding that Israel lift its blockade of the coastal enclave and give guarantees it will halt targeted killings of Hamas leaders and fighters.
Israel rejects this and wants guarantees that the rockets will stop for more than just a temporary period.
The growing civilian casualty rate could undercut international support for Israel, especially if there is a ground operation, Alon Liel, former director-general of the Israeli foreign ministry told The Scotsman last night.
He said: “With every passing day and more killed, the international umbrella will fade away.”