Sderot, Israel (CNSNews.com) – Israeli jets pounded Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip for the third day on Monday in an operation aimed at stopping Hamas rocket barrages that have plagued Israel’s southern communities for years. The operation is the strongest military assault on the area since the 1967 Six-Day War.
Some 40 rockets had rained down on Israeli communities by midday on Monday, including a Katyusha rocket that slammed into the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, killing one person and injuring at least seven others, the army said.
Another Israeli civilian was killed hours after the surprise operation was launched on Saturday morning, when a Hamas-fired rocket made a direct hit on an Israeli home in a community near the Gaza Strip.
Palestinians reported at least 307 dead on Monday--many of them uniformed Hamas policemen, though there are reports that a number of children have been among the casualties in the last three days. The United Nations Relief Works Agency (UNRWA), which is in charge of Palestinian refugee issues, said on Monday that more than 50 of those killed were civilians.
The United Nations and other members of the international community have called for an immediate return to a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, but Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak indicated on Monday that Israel had no intention of backing down.
“This operation will be extended and deepened as we find necessary. Our goal is to strike Hamas and stop the attacks on Israel,” Barak told Israeli lawmakers.
Barak laid full blame on Hamas saying it controlled the Gaza Strip. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip more than three years ago, in a unilateral pullout giving a chance for what he called a “new reality”. But instead Hamas has been firing rockets and missiles and carrying out attacks against Israel, he said.
Barak said that Israel was targeting the Hamas leadership and doing its utmost “to prevent civilian casualties” among Palestinians. He noted that Israel was also allowing humanitarian aid to continue to enter Gaza.
Speaking at the same meeting Israeli opposition Likud party leader Binyamin Netanyahu said that Israel should not only work to stop the rocket attacks but should also topple Hamas.
“Our goal should be twofold--stopping the attacks on our cities and eliminating the threat of rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip,” said Netanyahu.
“Stopping the attacks can be done within a short period of time, while eliminating the threat of rocket attacks from Gaza will entail toppling the Hamas rule over the Strip and uprooting the Iranian base there,” Netanyahu said in reference to Iran’s backing for Hamas.
Israel has taken great pains to explain its position to the international community. Officials have had to compete with pictures of flattened, smoking and burned buildings and the bloodied dead and wounded from Gaza.
Israeli government spokesman Danny Seaman said that his country’s message is that it would no longer tolerate the rocket attacks against its citizens.
“A quarter of a million Israeli citizens have lived the past seven years under duress, almost daily barrage of missiles. No country would accept that violation of its sovereignty,” Seaman said in Sderot.
Seaman said that Israel had restrained itself for many years but Hamas had deliberately built its infrastructure in the midst of its own civilian population.
Since the beginning of the year, more than 3,100 rockets have been launched at Israel--300 of them during the six-month ceasefire and another 350 last week, the army said.
The last six months there has been no Israeli response, Seaman said.
Hamas had misinterpreted that restraint as weakness. They blatantly said they would not respect an international ceasefire. But now they have realized that “Israel’s restraint and its abilities are far more than they expected,” Seaman said on Sunday.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni met on Sunday with foreign diplomats in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, which has been hard hit by rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip for years.
Livni said despite the fact that Israel had left the Gaza Strip years ago, with the idea that this would be the beginning of a Palestinian state. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip from Palestinian Authority forces.
“Hamas uses its power to harm civilians. Our actions are designed to minimize the harm to civilians,” Livni said. Most of those killed were wearing uniforms and Israel called on Palestinians civilians to leave places that would be bombed, she said.
According to Israeli officials, Palestinian residents were warned following the initial air raid by phone calls, text messages and leaflets to leave buildings where Hamas was storing weapons or was headquartered.
Livni said that the role of the international community would be to state clearly that: “Hamas is responsible. Hamas is the ruler and Hamas put the population of Gaza in danger.”
Livni rejected calls for a ceasefire and said there was no equating Israel and Hamas.
“Hamas is a terrorist organization and Israel is a state defending itself,” she said.
Israeli government minister Yitzhak Herzog said in a media interview that a ground operation is still on the table. Israel had called for a ceasefire and restrained itself time and again but it was clear, he said, that Israel would have to deal with Hamas with “full-fledged force if necessary.”
Israeli troops and tanks could be seen amassing on the border with the Gaza Strip on Sunday for a possible ground incursion. The government has given the go-ahead for the call-up of thousands of Israeli reservists, State-run radio reported on Monday.
Overnight, Israeli planes struck Hamas outposts and weapons manufacturing facilities as well as the office of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and what the army said was a center for weapon research and development at the Islamic University in Gaza City. Naval forces also struck Hamas vessels and posts, the army said.
So far Israel has struck some 300 Hamas targets, including 40 smuggling tunnels along the Egyptian border, on Sunday. The Israeli Air Force used new bunker-buster missiles that it received from the U.S. recently, the Jerusalem Post reported on Monday.
The army said more than 150 rockets had been launched from the Gaza Strip since the operation began, including two rockets that hit further from the Gaza Strip than ever, slamming into the Israeli port city of Ashdod some 40 kilometers (24 miles) north of Gaza.
The two were reportedly Katyushas, powerful Russian-designed weapons which Lebanon's Hezbollah has used against northern Israel with deadly effect for years. Israeli officials believe the upgraded rockets, which have a 122 mm diameter and a range of up to 24 miles, have been supplied to the Palestinian group by Iran and Syria, and smuggled into the Hamas-controlled territory through tunnels along the Gaza-Egyptian border.
Humanitarian aid has been flowing into the Gaza Strip through Israeli controlled crossings during the last two days, officials said.
The military operation took both Gazans and Israelis by surprise.
Over the last few years, the Israeli government has warned Hamas to halt its rocket fire and mounted limited aerial strikes and incursions. But it never followed through with an all out military assault as it has this time.
One Israeli strike during the first round of attacks hit a graduation ceremony for Hamas policemen. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum vowed that his group would continue the “resistance” until “the last drop of blood.”
Hamas chief in Damascus Khaled Mashaal called on Palestinians in the West Bank to rise up in a new intifadah. Since Saturday, Palestinians throughout the West Bank and in eastern Jerusalem have been rioting. On Monday, a Palestinian stabbed three Israelis in what is being called a terror attack.
But some Sderot residents were also surprised.
Ze’ev Ben Ezra and Aviad Kochavit, both 29, were standing on a small hill overlooking the Gaza Strip, drinking coffee and watching for Israeli military actions on Sunday as journalists arrived to take pictures of the city.
Kochavit said he was surprised by the assault but Ben Ezra said he was not.
“They should have done this eight years ago,” Ben Ezra said. The situation was insufferable. There were many wounded in body and soul and suffering from trauma during the years, he said.
Another resident at the site, who was too shy to give his name, said that his 11-year-old son was afraid of the rockets. Rockets have been hitting Sderot since he was just three years old. He doesn’t know another reality, the resident said.
Resident and photographer Hamutal Ben Shitrit said she had been surprised.
“We didn’t expect [it] to be. We thought that everything [would] be the same. They [Hamas] will keep sending rockets at us and we will do nothing…so we were very surprised,” she told CNSNews.com.
“It’s hard for me to say that it’s good because I know a lot of citizens there [in Gaza] were hurt,” she said. “I’m truly sorry about the citizens in Gaza but we have to do something. We cannot keep sitting here and doing nothing.”