Israel orders 'strong action' against Hamas as rocket fire from Gaza persists

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his security cabinet on Thursday after Hamas fired close to 200 rockets into Israeli territory -- and as the country's military reinforced units along the border ahead of a feared escalation.

In a brief statement, the cabinet said it had ordered the army "to continue taking strong action against the terrorist elements." Before the meeting, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, met with top military officials to discuss their options.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, told The Associated Press that Israel had "ground troops that are ready to deploy. We are reinforcing the southern command and Gaza division." He wouldn't comment on Israeli media reports of troops preparing for a possible ground operation.

Also Thursday, the Israeli military flattened a well-known cultural center in a crowded Gaza City neighborhood, claiming it was a Hamas military base, as militants fired rockets toward Israel throughout the evening.

At least 180 rockets have been fired into Israel from Gaza since Wednesday. Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted at least 30 of those rockets while others landed in open spaces.

An Israeli airstrike hits the Said al-Mis'hal cultural center in Gaza City Thursday.

An Israeli airstrike hits the Said al-Mis'hal cultural center in Gaza City Thursday. (Copyright 2018 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

The Israeli military has responded with 140 airstrikes, which Gaza authorities claimed killed at least three people -- including a pregnant woman and her 1-year-old daughter. At least 28 people have been injured across southern Israel.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Despite the anger, the enemies have signaled, through their contacts with Egypt, that they want to avoid another war and the Cairo government is continuing efforts to broker a long-term cease-fire.

Hamas is demanding the lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade that has devastated Gaza's economy, while Israel has called for an end to rocket fire, as well as recent border protests and launches of incendiary balloons, and the return of the remains of two dead soldiers and two Israelis believed to be alive and held by Hamas.

Thursday's fighting, however, brought back memories of the most recent war, in 2014. Air raid sirens wailed in southern Israel overnight and throughout the day, sending families scrambling into bomb shelters, canceling outdoor summer cultural events and forcing summer camps indoors. The Israeli air force, meanwhile, pounded targets across Gaza.

A Palestinian rocket struck the southern city of Beersheba late in the afternoon, landing in an open area. It was the first time a rocket had hit the city since the 2014 war.

In southern Israel, two Thai laborers were among the seven wounded by rocket or mortar fire, and rockets damaged buildings in the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon.

In Sderot, Fox News observed houses and cars pockmarked with shrapnel where some rockets had landed Wednesday night. Amateur video showed parents and children fleeing a playground as rockets landed nearby.

At the United Nations, Israel's ambassador, Danny Danon, urged the secretary-general and U.N. Security Council to condemn Hamas militants for what he called "the unprovoked terrorist attack" on southern Israel.

Nickolay Mladenov, the U.N. Mideast envoy, said he was "deeply alarmed" and appealed for calm. He warned the situation "can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people."

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said U.S. officials were concerned by the situation in Gaza.

"Overall, we condemn the launching of missile attacks into Israel, and call for an end to the destructive violence. We've seen reports that 180 or so rocket attacks have taken place, shot from Gaza into Israel, and we fully support Israel's right to defend itself, and to take actions to prevent provocations of that nature," Nauert said.

Tension along the Israel-Gaza border has escalated since late March, when Hamas launched what would become regular mass protests along Israel's perimeter fence with Gaza. The protests have been aimed in part at trying to break the blockade.

Israel and Hamas have engaged in several bouts of fighting this month. The latest round erupted Tuesday, when the Israeli military struck a Hamas military post in Gaza after it said militants fired on Israeli troops on the border. Hamas said two of its fighters were killed after taking part in a gunfire parade inside a militant camp.

The incident unfolded while a group of senior Hamas leaders from abroad were visiting Gaza to discuss the ceases-fire efforts with local leaders.

A top Hamas official told The Associated Press that the group waited for the delegation to leave Gaza before responding with rocket fire late Wednesday.

Fox News' David Lee Miller in Sderot, Israel, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.