Israel, Hamas escalate violence

Smoke and flames are seen following what police said was an Israeli air strike in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday

TEL AVIV—Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip unleashed their most far-reaching rocket attack ever on major Israeli population centers, as Israel said it was launching a protracted assault on the territory’s Islamist rulers.

Warplanes hit 150 purported militant sites on Tuesday alone and the Israeli government authorized the call-up of some 40,000 army reservists, mobilizing for the third large-scale military operation against Gaza in five years.

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Militants launched more than 150 rockets from Gaza, hitting farther north than ever before and targeting at least seven major cities in a single day for the first time. Three hit Jerusalem, the first time rockets from Gaza reached the city.

An Israeli Iron Dome defense system missile is fired to intercept a rocket fired from Gaza over the city of Ashdod, southern Israel, on Tuesday

Two rockets were intercepted over Tel Aviv, 40 miles north of Gaza, by the Iron Dome missile shield. The rockets reached as far north as the city of Hadera, 73 miles from Gaza. They also hit the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion and the southern cities of Beersheva, Ashdod and Ashkelon. They set off air raid sirens even in distant northern Israel.

Israeli officials said the government was “removing the gloves” against Hamas in retaliation for the rocket fire.

Libby Weiss, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the army was poised for a protracted assault on Hamas. Two infantry divisions have been deployed to the border region, suggesting preparations for a ground incursion.

“There’s understanding that this isn’t going to be a short mission,” Ms. Weiss said. “It’s not going to be one night and done.”

In southern Israel, which bore the brunt of rocket attacks from Gaza, residents took cover in bomb shelters, with orders by the army to stay home from work.  Summer camps were canceled and the home front command forbade gatherings of more than 40 people. Tel Aviv and Jerusalem municipalities opened up bomb shelters.

The Israeli military said it foiled an attempted commando assault from the sea on a military base in southern Israel.  The attack was launched from Gaza and the assailants were armed with guns and grenades, it said, adding that at least four of them were killed.

Palestinians inspect a destroyed car belonging to militants following an Israeli airstrike in central Gaza City on Tuesday

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s appeals to Hamas to de-escalate hostilities have been ignored.

“Hamas chose escalation,” he said. “We will do everything necessary to ensure that the quiet that has prevailed in recent years will continue.”

At least 15 people in Gaza were killed and 92 wounded in airstrikes, Gaza’s Health Ministry said, as residents braced for more attacks. No Israeli casualties were reported.

Among the casualties in Gaza were seven Palestinians killed and two dozen injured—most of them civilians—after they ran into a house in the city of Khan Younis despite warnings by Israel’s military that it was about to be bombed, Palestinian health officials said.

The Israelis had deemed the house a “terror activity site.” But family members who survived said they thought if they stayed as human shields, they could stop the attack, and dozens of men rushed to the roof.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said on his Facebook page that the civilian casualties in Gaza meant that Hamas could do the same to Israel.

In Gaza City, residents flooded into grocery stores and bakeries to stockpile food.

An Israeli Apache helicopter shoots a missile over the Gaza Strip as seen from Israel’s border with Gaza on Tuesday

Israeli officials described the goal of their operation as degrading Hamas’s military infrastructure and restoring the calm that has largely prevailed along the 36-mile frontier since Israel’s last major military operation in the area in November 2012.

Israel has estimated there are about 10,000 rockets in Hamas’s arsenal, including Qassam, Katyushas and GRADs. Israel has said in the past that Tel Aviv was within Gaza’s rocket range.

Israel may be loath to topple the Hamas government for lack of a better alternative. Hamas has effectively reined in militants during a cease-fire that had held for the last 20 months.

If Hamas were ousted it would create a power vacuum that could be filled by more radical groups that might further destabilize the frontier, Mordechai Kedar, a former Israeli military intelligence officer and researcher at the Begin Sadat Center for Peace at Bar Ilan University, told Israel Radio.

That said, Mr. Netanyahu is facing renewed pressure from within his own government to uproot Hamas, which Israel accuses of killing three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank last month. The killings, and the subsequent killing of a Palestinian teenager last week, ratcheted up tensions in the region.

After Mr. Netanyahu offered Hamas “calm-for-calm,” his Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman protested on Monday by breaking up a year-and-a-half old political partnership which combined their parliamentary factions into a single bloc.

Hamas was defiant amid the onslaught of airstrikes and named its conditions for a cease-fire. They included the release of activists freed under a 2011 prisoner swap who were arrested in recent weeks during an Israeli crackdown in the West Bank, the lifting of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, and a resumption of the cease-fire terms of 2012.

“The resistance will not raise the white flag,” said Ismail Al Ashkar, a Hamas legislator in Gaza. “We will only stop when they raise the white flag and meet the demands of the resistance.”

Egypt, which mediated during the 2012 war, called on both sides to de-escalate.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, called Israel’s operation a “declaration of all-out war on the Palestinian people” and said the Israeli government will bear the consequences.

Kibbutz Nir Am, an Israeli community on the border with Gaza, looked to temporarily evacuate some 300 residents.

“It feels like a war,” said Rotem Yehudai, a 23-year-old student whose final exams at Ben Gurion University in the southern Israel city of Beersheva were postponed. “We’re pretty used to this, but now the Israeli government is actually doing something about it,” said the longtime resident of the south. “We’re pretty used to this, but now the Israeli government is actually doing something about it,” said the longtime resident of the south.

In Gaza, there were few pedestrians on the streets and the main highway connecting north and south was nearly empty for fear of more airstrikes. Food sellers said a buying spree would leave them with no supplies within days. Food sellers said a buying spree would leave them with no supplies within days.

The strikes stoked some sympathy for the Hamas government from supporters of the rival Fatah faction. But others said they were frightened by rocket launches from inside their neighborhoods.

Asked if he wanted Hamas to expand the scope of missile strikes to Tel Aviv, Ali Salam, a Palestinian government employee, replied: “We will all eat manure if we do that. I want the Egyptians to mediate and end this issue.”