ISRAELI tank fire killed a Palestinian in Gaza early this morning, taking to 12 the overall toll from the deadliest 24 hours since a devastating war more than two years ago.
A truce declared by Palestinian armed groups in the enclave unravelled even before it could take hold as militants fired dozens of projectiles into southern Israel and the military retaliated.
Hamas put security forces and emergency services in Gaza on 24-hour alert amid the escalating violence and despite international calls for an end to hostilities. But a senior Israeli security official also said the Islamist group ruling the Gaza Strip had asked for a ceasefire.
“The political branch of Hamas has sent a message asking for an Israeli ceasefire” in exchange for a halt to Palestinian attacks, the official told AFP on condition of anonymity. He said Israeli operations would continue for as long as Israel felt “its people cannot lead normal lives” because of the threat of Palestinian attack.
He also indicated that Defence Minister Ehud Barak had indefinitely postponed a trip to Washington because of the gravity of the situation. Earlier around 30 mortar rounds or rockets fired from Gaza hit Israel, without causing damage or casualties, military radio said.
Twenty mortar bombs exploded, while 10 Grad rockets struck the area around Ashdod, Beersheba and Kiryat Gat, it said. Hamas decreed a state of alert after Israeli shelling killed the Palestinian and wounded a second in eastern Gaza City, medics said, without specifying whether they were militants or civilians.
“All security forces must work 24 hours in 24, even civil defence and medical services, to protect and save the people targeted by the Zionist occupiers,” interior ministry spokesman Ihab al-Ghussein said.
“Groups in Gaza committed themselves to respecting the Palestinian consensus and halting rocket attacks, but the Zionist aggressor has ruined everything by attacking and killing civilians – women, children and old people,” he said. The fighting erupted on Thursday when Hamas militants fired an anti-tank missile at an Israeli school bus, critically wounding a teenager and injuring the driver.
“The attack on a school bus yesterday crossed the line… Whoever tries to hurt and murder children, his blood will be on his own head,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in Prague on Friday. Since the attack, Israel has raided dozens of targets across the Palestinian territory. By early Saturday, it had killed 17 Gazans — including a 10-year-old boy, at least five Hamas militants and one policeman.
At least 57 Palestinians were wounded, 12 seriously, medics said. The death toll of 12 made it the deadliest 24 hours in Gaza since the end of Operation Cast Lead, the devastating 22-day offensive Israel launched in December 2008 that claimed the lives of some 1400 Palestinians – more than half civilians – and 13 Israelis, including 10 soldiers.
Palestinian armed groups declared a unilateral truce, but both Hamas and Islamic Jihad claimed mortar and rocket attacks on Israel on Friday as the violence intensified. An Israeli military spokeswoman said rocket and mortar fire by Gaza militants continued into the morning.
Several industrially manufactured Grad rockets were fired at the Israeli city of Ashkelon but were intercepted by the newly deployed Iron Dome short-range defence system, the spokeswoman added. The port with a population of some 113,000 was the second city to be protected by an Iron Dome battery after the desert city of Beersheba which has also been targeted by Gaza militants.
The defence system, the first of its kind in the world and still experimental, is not yet able to provide complete protection against rocket fire from Gaza, army commanders have warned. The Israeli military spokeswoman said overnight raids on Gaza had targeted a “large car carrying weapons,” a tunnel and “three Hamas commanders.”
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton condemned the rocket fire from Gaza but also urged Israel to show restraint, urging “an immediate cessation of all violence” and prompting an Israeli diplomat’s “dismay” at her “choice of words.”