A Gazan rocket crashed into the sea near Tel Aviv on Thursday as the Palestinian death toll from Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip rose to 16, lurching the military showdown closer to all-out war and a possible Israeli ground invasion.

Eight Palestinians and three Israelis were killed in a wave of unrelenting cross-border fighting on Thursday as the Jewish state pressed a vast air offensive on Gaza.

Operation Pillar of Defence, Israel’s biggest military campaign against Gaza in nearly four years, began on Wednesday with the targeted killing of top Hamas commander Ahmed al-Jaabari, triggering a major flare-up in and around the tiny Palestinian enclave that is home to 1.6 million people.

On Thursday evening, sirens in Tel Aviv sent commuters scurrying home as a rocket crashed into the sea near the coastal city, causing no casualties. Gaza-based Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad claimed the attack. “We have widened the range of the battle to reach Tel Aviv and what is coming will be greater,” the group said in a statement.

In response, Israeli forces moved closer towards the Gaza border in what appeared to be a prelude to a possible ground offensive, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak ordered a call-up of some 30,000 reservists to ready a broader operation.

The unremitting violence, which erupted as Israel heads towards a January general election, sparked expressions of deep concern from the international community and prompted an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council in New York.

Hamas defiant

Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement remained defiant, ruling out any talk of a truce even as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was ready to “significantly expand” its campaign against the territory.

“In the past 24 hours, Israel has made it clear that it will not tolerate rocket and missile attacks on its civilians. I hope that Hamas and the other terror organisations in Gaza got the message,” he said on Thursday. “If not, Israel is prepared to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people.”

Avital Leibovitz, Israeli military spokesperson, told FRANCE 24 that the Israeli military was using “very surgical weapons” in order to target Hamas operations and avoid civilian casualties. Queried over the two children reported to have been killed during the strikes – one of them the 11-month-old baby of a BBC journalist – Leibovitz blamed their deaths on Hamas, who she said was “accountable for any Palestinian death” through the employment of human shields. “We are not looking for any escalation,” she said. “However, Hamas decided something else”.

Questioned over whether Israel planned a ground offensive in Gaza, Israeli Foreign Affairs Minister Yigal Palmor told FRANCE 24 on Thursday afternoon that in the case of intensified rocket fire from Hamas, ground forces would be forced to intervene. “The ball is in the court of Hamas,” he said. “We can only remain vigilant.”

Hamas’s exiled leader Khaled Meshaal said Israel would never be able to “vanquish” Gaza and pledged that “the war against the enemy will go on,” even after the loss of Hamas’s top commander.

Cast Lead fears

So far, 16 people have been killed in Gaza, among them five militants, two children and a teacher. A further 150 people have been injured in scores of Israeli strikes, medics and health ministry officials said.

“At this point, Gazans fear an incursion comparable to the one they saw four years ago during the Operation Cast Lead,” FRANCE 24 correspondent Gallagher Fenwick reported from Gaza City, where he said “huge plumes of black smoke” could be seen around the city. “There is a troubling coincidence that such a huge Israeli operation is taking place just two months before Israel’s next legislative elections.”

Operation Cast Lead, which saw more than a thousand Gazans killed during three weeks of air strikes in December 2008 – January 2009, took place months before Israel’s last round of legislative elections.

Retaliatory rockets

Tel Aviv residents were left shaken on Thursday evening after a rocket plunged into the sea near the sprawling commercial hub. The target was the farthest distance ever attained by a projectile fired from Gaza. Israeli news networks said it was the first time rockets had been fired at Tel Aviv since the 1991 Gulf War, when the city was hit by Iraqi Scud missiles.

In the southern Israeli town of Kiryat Malachi, police said two men and a woman had been killed when a rocket hit their home, and that another 19 people had been injured in various areas, including three soldiers.

Over a 24 hour-period, at least 138 rockets hit southern Israel while another 81 were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system, a military spokeswoman said.

Israeli police said they had raised their level of alert nationwide for fear of retaliatory attacks after the killing of the Hamas chief, and that all schools within 40 kilometres (24 miles) of Gaza were closed.

Global divide

The Israeli operation prompted an outpouring of anger across the Arab and Muslim world, with Tehran accusing the Jewish state of “organised terrorism” and Qatar’s prime minister saying the strikes “must not pass unpunished.”

Egypt’s Islamist administration, which has close ties with Hamas, immediately recalled its ambassador in protest, but in a surprise development, Hamas officials said they had been informed by Cairo that the Egyptian premier would visit Gaza with a number of ministers on Friday.

As Russia slammed Israel for “disproportionate” use of force in Gaza, Britain said it was Hamas that bore “principal responsibility” for the current crisis, with both governments calling for calm. Middle East envoy Tony Blair urged Hamas to stop targeting Israeli towns, warning that “the retaliation will increase.” The US White House said there was “no justification” for rocket attacks on Israel, blaming Hamas for the explosion of violence.

ref: www.france24.com