JERUSALEM – Israel’s 4-day-old air offensive in the Gaza Strip expanded to target Hamas government buildings on Saturday, and Palestinian militants continued firing a torrent of rockets at civilian areas in southern Israel, as both sides stepped up diplomatic efforts to win support.
Israeli airstrikes over Gaza accelerated to nearly 200 early in the day, including one hit that reduced the offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to a smoldering concrete heap. That strike, along with others on a police headquarters and smuggling tunnels along the strip’s southern border with Egypt, raised questions about whether Israel had broadened its mission to including toppling the Hamas government that rules the coastal strip.
Just before sundown, Hamas said it had shot an Iranian-made Fajr-5 rocket at Tel Aviv, and air raid sirens sounded in that city for the third day in a row. The Israeli military said its newly deployed missile defense battery intercepted the rocket before it landed in the populous coastal city.
The death toll in Gaza rose to 45 by Saturday evening, health ministry officials said. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza since the operation began. An Israeli military spokesman said about 130 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel on Saturday, 30 of which were intercepted by a missile-defense system known as Iron Dome.
Israel made preparations last week for a possible ground invasion, but there were no further signs of one coming on Saturday.
The Israeli airstrikes, which continued to target rocket launching sites and weapons depots, slowed throughout the day, even as Israel appeared to be channeling new efforts toward Hamas civilian institutions. Capt. Eytan Buchman, an Israeli military spokesman, said the strikes were part of our overarching goal of toppling Hamas’ command and control capabilities and did not mark a shift in mission.
Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, was apparently not at his office when it was hit.
According to the newspaper Haaretz, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai said the goal of the operation is to send Gaza back to the Middle Ages.
That is how it felt to Hossam and Sanaa al-Dadah, two teachers who had the misfortune of living next door to the house the Israeli military said belonged to a Hamas commander. At 6 a.m., the family’s windows shattered and their walls burst open. The commander’s adjacent house, in the Jabaliya refugee camp, had been demolished in an massive airstrike, and suddenly theirs was ruined, too.
In the terrifying moments that followed, Hossam al-Dadah, 50, frantically dug his five children out of the rubble, and a few hours later, they had been taken away to their grandparents’ home. But a dust-caked Sanaa al-Dadah, 40, rushed from room to room, crying and gathering her five children’s clothing, school bags and dolls and placing them on a sheet.
Israel says Hamas operates in populated areas to use civilians as human shields, and it has dropped thousands of leaflets over Gaza warning civilians to stay away from Hamas operatives. Sanaa al-Dadah said she never got the message.
Outside the house, children played insouciantly in rubble and scorched cars. Rami Mukayed, a 12-year-old in gray trousers, said he reserved his fear for darkness.
At night, come see me, I’m panicked, he said. I play in the morning. I hide in the evening.