GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – A bloody spike in Israel-Hamas fighting put the Israeli city of Ashkelon and its 110,000 residents at the center of an intensifying militant rocket barrage Thursday — and Israel's defense minister warned he would invade Gaza, if necessary, to halt the attacks.
Israel launched nearly a dozen airstrikes, killing 20 Palestinians, Gaza hospital officials said. The attacks included a not-so-veiled warning to Gaza's Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh — a missile strike on a guard post outside his home. Hamas leaders have been in hiding in recent weeks, though Israel has so far only targeted militants, not Hamas politicians.
The dead Thursday included members of rocket squads, as well as five children, ranging in age from 8 to 12, who their relatives said were playing soccer when they were killed in a missile strike.
Israel has been reluctant to invade Gaza, amid concerns of getting bogged down there, but Defense Minister Ehud Barak told his security chiefs Thursday that an offensive is a definite option. "The major ground operation is real and tangible. We are not afraid of it," Barak said, according to a participant who spoke on condition of anonymity because the top-level session was held in secrecy.
Barak also told Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the British foreign minister in phone conversations that Israel would step up its response to the rocket fire, but a ground offensive wasn't imminent. Security officials said an invasion would have to wait until clouds clear in the spring.
The latest spike began Wednesday, when five Iranian-trained Hamas militants, including two rocket masterminds, were killed in an Israeli airstrike in southern Gaza. In retaliation, Hamas fired dozens of Gaza-produced Qassam rockets, as well as longer-range Iranian-made Grad rockets smuggled in via Egypt.
Several Grad rockets slammed into Ashkelon, 11 miles north of Gaza, on Thursday, including one that hit an apartment building, slicing through the roof and three floors below, and another that landed near a school, wounding a 17-year-old girl.
While more than two dozen rockets have hit the Ashkelon area in the past, most fell in open areas in the southern outskirts and did not cause damage. The latest round of rocket fire was the most intense so far, and police chief Uri Bar-Lev said Thursday it was the first time a building in Ashkelon was hit. On Wednesday, a rocket exploded in the parking lot of Ashkelon's Barzilai Hospital.
In the past, the Israeli border town of Sderot, with about 20,000 residents, had been Hamas' main target. In recent years, hundreds of Qassams have hit Sderot, just a mile from Gaza, and on Wednesday an Israeli father of four was killed by a rocket that hit a Sderot community college.
Ashkelon residents demanded better protection.
"We want a warning system, like they have in Sderot," one resident, Moshe Nissim, told Israel TV's Channel Two. "We have no protection from Palestinian attacks." The deputy director of Barzilai Hospital asked for fortifications for his emergency room, maternity ward and surgery departments.
Barak pledged Thursday to install the warning system in Ashkelon within hours, defense officials said.
A senior Israeli security official told The Associated Press the rockets fired into Ashkelon were Iranian-made imports, with a range of about 14 miles, although the military said some locally made rockets have fallen into the southern outskirts of the city.
The Grads are taken apart, smuggled into Gaza through tunnels and reassembled, and Hamas has only a limited supply, the official said on condition of anonymity, in line with briefing regulations.
However, Hamas is rapidly upgrading its Qassams, which it can mass-produce in Gaza. Hamas has hundreds of Qassams in stock, and by the end of the year, it will likely have extended the Qassam range to 12 miles, the security official said.
Qassams now have a range of 10 miles, and would fall just short of Ashkelon.
Israeli military analyst Shlomo Brom said Ashkelon could increasingly become a target once it can be hit by Qassams, not just the Iranian imports. This, in turn, would accelerate an Israeli invasion of Gaza, because "Israel cannot afford Ashkelon turning into a second Sderot," Brom said.
Maj. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said residents of Ashkelon "are already in the circle of warfare," and there is concern that more Israeli cities could be put in rocket range.
Hamas, which seized control of Gaza by force in June, appears to have little to lose. Israel and Egypt keep Gaza's borders closed, making it hard for the Islamic militants to rule. Hamas hopes to push Israel to negotiate a cease-fire, along with a new border crossing deal, but apparently feels it can also survive an offensive.
The Israeli army has U.S.-made F-16 warplanes and Apache helicopters, as well as pilotless drones, in its arsenal. Palestinian witnesses said all three types of aircraft were used in the recent attacks.
Hamas officials struck a defiant tone Thursday. "We will never have equipment comparable to our enemy, but we are working all the time to have enough to make any aggression a regrettable adventure for the enemy," said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for the Hamas military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam.
Since Wednesday, 31 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli missile strikes, including 14 civilians, among them eight children, according to Palestinian hospital officials. The youngest was a 6-month-old boy, Mohammed al-Borai, whose funeral was held Thursday.
On Thursday, Israel carried out more than 10 airstrikes in northern and central Gaza, beginning just after midnight and stretching well into the afternoon, Palestinians said.
The army said it was targeting rocket squads, and blamed militants for operating in populated areas. Civilian casualties were unintended, the army said.
AP photos showed rockets being launched from densely populated areas in northern Gaza. At nightfall Thursday, Hamas said it had fired 82 rockets since Wednesday, including 51 at Sderot.
One missile strike killed two Palestinian brothers and their two cousins who were playing soccer in a field in the town of Jebaliya, their relatives said. A 12-year-old boy who was nearby later died of his wounds, medics said.
Later Thursday, a helicopter attacked a Hamas police post near the home of Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, in the Shati refugee camp. One person was killed and four people were wounded, officials said.
Another Israeli airstrike late Thursday hit an electric company vehicle in Khan Younis, killing two workmen, medics said. The Israeli military said they hit a car carrying militants.
Among the militants killed Thursday was Hamza al-Haya, the son of Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Haya. The elder al-Haya, one of Hamas' top figures in Gaza, has escaped assassination attempts, including an Israeli strike that killed his brother last year.
Visiting the morgue Thursday, Khalil al-Haya said he was proud his son had lost his life. "This is the 10th member of my family to receive the honor of martyrdom," he said.
In Tokyo, visiting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Israel will go after the militants. "We will reach out for the terrorists and we will attack and we will try to stop them," he said.
Rice, who briefly met with Olmert in Tokyo, said Hamas rocket attacks "need to stop," but also expressed concern for the humanitarian situation in Gaza and urged calm on all sides.
Israel's public security minister, Avi Dichter, visited Sderot Thursday, but was forced to cut short a news conference when an air raid siren went off and his guards rushed him to a concrete shelter. Before Dichter arrived in the town, two people were hurt by rocket fire, including one of his bodyguards.
Dichter told reporters he had no quick solution for the rocket attacks, but rejected suggestions of opening a dialogue with Hamas, which Israel considers a terrorist group.