Israel hits Gaza with deadly airstrikes amid rocket fire by Hamas

By Patrick Kingsley and Isabel Kershner

The Israeli military, prepared for the latest eruption of cross-border fighting with militant groups in the Gaza Strip, designated a code name for its operation just hours after the deadly violence began: Guardians of the Walls, a reference to the ancient ramparts of the Old City of Jerusalem. The militant groups had their own code name for their campaign: Sword of Jerusalem.

By early Tuesday, barely 12 hours after Hamas, the Islamic militant group that holds sway in Gaza, had launched a surprise volley of rockets toward Jerusalem, Israel had carried out at least 130 retaliatory airstrikes in the Palestinian coastal territory, according to an Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus. Militant groups had fired at least 200 rockets into Israel, Conricus said.

Twenty-three Palestinians, including nine children, were killed in the airstrikes overnight and 107 others were wounded, according to health officials in Gaza.

Conricus said Tuesday that 15 militants had been killed in strikes by jets and unmanned drones.

He did not confirm or reject the reports of civilian deaths, adding, “We are doing everything possible to avoid collateral damage.”

Hamas said that a number of its militants had been killed and that some others had been reported missing in an Israeli attack on a target, without giving further details.

Although the intensity of the fighting seemed to have waned slightly during the night, Conricus said that the military’s air campaign was still in its “early stages.” Sporadic airstrikes and rocket barrages continued early Tuesday. Journalists were unable to enter the coastal enclave Tuesday morning because of rocket fire near the crossing point from Israel.

The Israeli military said in a statement that it had reinforced its troops and was “prepared for a variety of scenarios.”

The cross-border military conflict escalated rapidly Monday evening after weeks of rising tensions and confrontations between the police and Palestinian protesters in and around the ancient center of Jerusalem, including at the sacred Al-Aqsa compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Hamas, casting itself as the Palestinian defender of the contested city, had issued a series of threats and ultimatums.

The immediate trigger appears to have been a police raid at the mosque compound Monday morning to disperse crowds and stone-throwing protesters with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber-tipped bullets. More than 330 Palestinians were wounded, at least three critically, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent. At least 21 police officers were wounded.

But as the conflict expanded and the airstrikes began, it quickly became deadly.

In Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, the Masri family was grieving for two boys who were killed Monday evening. Ibrahim, 11, and Marwan, 7, had been playing outside their home when a missile struck, according to their uncle, Bashir al-Masri, 25.

About a dozen miles north, in a suburb of Ashkelon, an Israeli seaside city up the coast from Gaza, residents were startled shortly before 6 a.m. by a rocket strike on an apartment block.

The rocket crashed through the window of a third-story apartment in Kohav HaTzafon, an area that is home to mostly Russian immigrants, and it shattered several others with its impact.

Six people wounded by the direct hit on the building, four of them from one family, were transported to Barzilai Medical Center, the main hospital in Ashkelon. The parents were in moderate to serious condition and their two children, ages 6 and 12, along with the two others were lightly wounded, according to the hospital.

The Iron Dome, an Israeli anti-missile defense system, successfully intercepts about 90% of rockets headed for populated areas, according to military officials. But the system failed Tuesday morning in Ashkelon.

Most of the rockets fired out of Gaza during this round of fighting have been short-range projectiles, primarily aimed at civilian communities within a few miles of the border. Israeli schools within a 25-mile radius of Gaza were ordered closed Tuesday.

The Israeli military said that its targets had included the weapons manufacturing sites of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another militant group, as well as military facilities and two offensive tunnels. A Hamas battalion commander who was at home in a residential apartment building was also targeted, according to the military.

Images from Gaza showed a corner apartment on an upper floor of a multistory building that had been destroyed. Raed al-Dahshan, a Gaza civil defense spokesman, said that the bodies of three people had been removed from the ruins of the building. Health officials said that they were civilians. Neither the location nor the condition of the person said to be a battalion commander was immediately clear.

The military wing of Hamas, known as the Qassam Brigades, issued a statement after the strike on the building warning Israel that if it kept hitting civilian houses, “We will turn Ashkelon into hell.”

The barrage of rockets quickly followed.

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