July 9, 2014 at 8:36 pm

Israel steps up Gaza airstrikes

Hamas official warns Palestinians would strike back fiercely

A Palestinian boy plays in the rubble of a destroyed house the day after an Israeli strike in the town of Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip. (Khalil Hamra / AP)

Jerusalem — With rockets raining deep inside Israel, the military pummeled Palestinian targets Wednesday across the Gaza Strip and threatened a broad ground offensive, while the first diplomatic efforts to end two days of heavy fighting got underway.

Egypt, which has mediated before between Israel and the Hamas militant group, said it spoke to all sides about ending the violence. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in touch with Israel to try to lower tensions. And the head of the United Nations warned of a “deteriorating situation … which could quickly get beyond anyone’s control.”

As the Palestinian death toll rose above 60, neither side showed any sign of halting their heaviest fighting since an eight-day battle in late 2012.

The offensive has set off the heaviest fighting between Israel and the Islamic militant group Hamas since an eight-day battle in November 2012. As the death toll continued to rise, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas accused Israel of committing “genocide.”

Israel said it hit more than 300 targets and Hamas positions throughout Gaza, including rocket-launchers, weapons-storage sites and tunnels that it said the group uses to carry out attacks. The military said 74 rockets landed inside Israel, including one that reached the northern city of Hadera, the deepest rocket strike ever fired from Gaza.

“Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing toward Israeli citizens,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “The operation will expand and continue until the fire toward our towns stops and quiet returns.”

Israel began the offensive Tuesday in response to weeks of rocket launches, and officials said the airstrikes would continue until the firing stops. At least 20 civilians were among at least 61 deaths reported by Palestinian medical officials. There have been no serious casualties on the Israeli side.

Thousands of Israeli troops massed near the Gaza border, the possibility of a ground invasion grew larger — along with the risk of heavier casualties on both sides.

“Despite the fact it will be hard, complicated and costly, we will have to take over Gaza temporarily, for a few weeks, to cut off the strengthening of this terror army,” Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s intelligence minister, told Israel Radio. “If you ask my humble opinion, a significant operation like this is approaching.”

The government has authorized the army to activate up to 40,000 reservists, and Israeli TV stations said about a quarter of those forces had been called up, signaling a decision on a ground invasion could still be days away.

A ground offensive in Gaza would be a risky gamble for Israel. It could lead to heavy civilian casualties on the Palestinian side and trigger strong international criticism, as was the case during one that killed hundreds of Palestinians in early 2009. Israeli troops would also be at much greater risk if they enter Gaza’s crowded urban landscape, home to 1.8 million people, especially for a long-term presence.

Israeli security officials say they have prepared a number of scenarios inside Gaza, ranging from a quick pinpoint operation to a full re-occupation of the seaside strip. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

In the first indication that cease-fire efforts were underway, the office of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said he held “extensive contacts with all active and concerned parties” to end the fighting.

It said the two sides discussed the “critical conditions and the need to stop all military action, and to stop the slide” toward more violence. It called on Israel to protect Palestinian civilians.

Hamas official Musheer al-Masri said Israel had “crossed all the red lines” and warned that Hamas would strike back fiercely. “What the resistance showed today is only part of what it is capable of,” he said.

The increasing range of the rockets from Gaza has disrupted life across a wide swath of southern and central Israel, where people have been forced to remain close to home and kindergartens and summer camps have been forced to close.

Israeli missiles hit smuggling tunnels Wednesday between Egypt and the ... (Hatem Ali / AP)