Israel’s President: Gaza ground offensive ‘may happen quite soon’
JERUSALEM (CNN) — Israeli airstrikes pounded targets in Gaza, killing scores of people Wednesday as dozens of militant rockets streaked into Israel.
The continued Hamas barrage prompted Israel’s Prime Minister to step up the offensive against the militant group.
“The operation will be expanded and will continue until the firing at our communities stops and quiet is restored,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
He did not detail what the expansion would entail but said Israel’s military “is prepared for all possibilities.”
President Shimon Peres, whose role is largely ceremonial and is not involved in setting policy, said in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Becky Anderson that he believed a ground offensive “may happen quite soon” unless Hamas stops firing rockets at Israel.
“We warned them. We asked them to stop it,” Peres told Anderson. “We waited one day, two days, three days and they continued, and they spread their fire on more areas in Israel.”
While Peres was speaking on his own and his position may not outline an official government policy, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz earlier told CNN that a ground operation “might become necessary.”
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, convened an emergency meeting of his Cabinet to discuss the crisis.
“This war is not against Hamas or another political party but it is against the Palestinian people,” he told the media afterward. “What do you call this crime? What is this crime known under international law? To kill entire families, is this collective punishment?
“This is called collective genocide.”
A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said Israel’s threat to launch a “stupid” ground offensive didn’t scare anyone, and fighters from Hamas’ military wing were ready to face off with Israel’s “coward” soldiers in Gaza.
More deaths in Gaza
The comments came as the death toll rose in Gaza, where the Israel Defense Forces had struck at 550 Hamas targets since launching its offensive Monday.
The IDF said the targets included 60 rocket launchers, 31 tunnels and the homes of 11 senior Hamas leaders, which the IDF described as “command centers.”
At least 53 Palestinians have been killed and more than 500 injured in the airstrikes, according to Palestinian medical sources and Health Ministry officials.
Among the dead were eight women and 11 children, including an 18-month-old baby and an 80-year-old woman, according to a list provided by Palestinian medical sources and Health Ministry officials.
In one airstrike Wednesday, two children and their mother were among five people killed when Israeli forces targeted their house. Some members of the family are believed to have links to Hamas, Palestinian security sources said.
The Israeli Cabinet has authorized the military to call up 40,000 troops if needed. That is 10,000 more than were called up during Israel’s offensive into Gaza in November 2012. Only about 1,000 have been mobilized so far.
Teens’ deaths sparked new violence
Tensions in the region reached a fever pitch after three Israeli teens, including one with dual U.S. citizenship, were kidnapped last month on their way home from school in the West Bank. Their bodies were found last week.
Israel blames Hamas, but the group has denied any involvement.
“Hamas said it clearly. … We don’t have information about what had happened,” Osama Hamdan, a foreign policy spokesman for Hamas, told CNN’s Michael Holmes.
Only days after the bodies of the Israelis were discovered, a Palestinian teen was abducted, and then found dead, within an hour in Jerusalem. Israel has arrested suspects and says there’s “strong indication” it was a revenge killing.
Hamas political leader Khaled Meshaal blamed Netanyahu for the wave of violence.
“It is as if we started the problem in Gaza,” he said. “As if a rocket was fired from Gaza so the Zionist enemy was forced to respond to it. This is not true.”
“I say to the American and European administrations and the United Nations and our Arab neighbors: Were the Palestinian people supposed to break and surrender and die a slow death?” he said. “What is left of our lands and our holy sites? What life is left?”
But with rockets flying over his country’s cities, Netanyahu seemed in no mood to back down.
“Our military is strong, the home front is steadfast and our people are united,” he said.
The region has many depressing precedents when it comes to violence. In recent decades, Palestinians launched two armed uprisings, known as intifadas, that each went on for years.
In late 2008 and early 2009, Israel carried out airstrikes and then a ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza that killed hundreds of Palestinians. The November 2012 Israeli offensive sparked a bloody eight-day conflict that ended in a cease-fire.
The IDF said 72 rockets rained down on Israel on Wednesday. Some came down in unpopulated areas, while others were intercepted by the country’s Iron Dome defense system over Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Dimona, the IDF said.
There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Dimona is home to a nuclear plant. Israeli media reported the facility was not hit.
The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv said it would close Thursday. Embassy staff had to take shelter Tuesday during a rocket warning, and the facility was already operating with minimal staff.
Hamas is believed to have 10,000 rockets of varying ranges, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman. Israel said some 3.5 million residents live in areas within reach of the rockets.
By Diana Magnay, Michael Pearson and Ed Payne
CNN’s Diana Magnay reported from Jerusalem, Michael Pearson, Steve Almasy and Ed Payne reported and wrote from Atlanta. CNN’s Kareem Khadder, Ben Wedeman, Tal Heinrich, Salma Abdelaziz, Josh Levs, Talal Abu Rahma and Jason Hanna also contributed to this report.