Gaza suffered its bloodiest day since Israel launched a military offensive in the Hamas-controlled enclave, with a sharp escalation in the ferocity of attacks from both sides amid frenzied last-minute diplomacy to try and forestall an Israeli ground assault.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed a “significant expansion” of Israel’s military onslaught, even as an Israeli envoy was reported to be travelling to Cairo for ceasefire talks with Egyptian mediators.
Nabeel Sha’ath, a senior Fatah official, has been dispatched to Gaza by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to intercede with the leaders of the rival Hamas group.
The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon has joined the chorus of prominent officials calling for a ceasefire as the pounding of Gaza entered its sixth day.
Fresh strikes continued this morning with some sources claiming three rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli town of Ashkelon.
He is expected to visit Cairo to join talks aimed at bringing an end to the current escalation of the ongoing conflict - which has already claimed the lives of eighty-six Palestinians and three Israelis in six days.
The Israeli army said it had targeted 80 sites overnight, among them police stations, weapons facilities and militant-owned buildings.
At least 24 Palestinians were killed by Israeli air and artillery attacks during yesterday – and Palestinian sources said 18 people were killed in the raids overnight.
Yesterday was the bloodiest since Operation Pillar of Defence began last Wednesday with the assassination of the Hamas military chief, Ahmed al-Jabari. Israel said the commander of the Hamas rocket unit was among yesterday’s targets.
Eleven Palestinian civilians were reported killed when an Israeli missile levelled their home in Gaza City’s Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood in an apparent strike against the home of a senior Hamas militant. The Palestinian Ma’an News Agency said that four women and four children from the same family were among the dead.
The Israel Foreign Press Association, meanwhile, lodged an official complaint with the Israeli army after six journalists were injured, one seriously, when Israeli missiles destroyed the offices and studio of two television stations linked to Hamas in Gaza City high-rises that also house Sky News Arabic and other international media bureaus.
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh said Israel had bombed the Al-Quds bureau “because it had enraged the Zionists by its coverage” of Israel’s “crimes in Gaza.” Both pro-Hamas networks continued broadcasting from other locations, but their programmes were interrupted by messages from the Israeli army warning Gaza residents to stay away from Hamas installations and personnel.
At least four Israelis were injured as Palestinian groups unleashed repeated barrages of rockets at Beersheba, Sderot, Ashkelon and Ashdod throughout the day. There were several direct hits on homes and cars. One Grad rocket hit the roof of a four-storey apartment block in Ashkelon and drilled through to the second floor.
“The apartment was torn to pieces. It’s a miracle I am still alive,” 71-year-old father of nine Malai Molalem told The Independent, huddling in a bomb shelter as the hollow boom of falling rockets sounded again and again.
Hamas fired two long-range Fajr 5 missiles at Tel Aviv, 40 miles away, making four attempts in three days. They were both destroyed by the Iron Dome missile defence system.
Addressing the Israeli cabinet in Jerusalem, Mr Netanyahu said Israel had attacked more than 1,000 targets since Wednesday and was “achieving significant hits on weapons aimed at Israeli citizens, as well as on those who use these weapons and those who dispatch them.”
“The IDF is prepared for a significant expansion of its operations,” Mr Netanyahu warned as the cabinet approved the mobilisation of 75,000 troops. Roads were blocked as thousands of reservists and military transporters loaded with tanks and armoured cars rumbled southwards.
With rumours of an imminent ground offensive, other countries in the region moved to try and find a negotiated settlement.
In Cairo, President Mohammed Morsi was reported to be putting intense pressure on Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to agree to a ceasefire. Egyptian officials confirmed that an Israeli envoy had arrived in the city but radicals on both sides appeared to be digging in their heels.
Ziad Nakhleh, deputy leader of Islamic Jihad, told the Al Hayat daily it was time to teach Israel a lesson.
“We don’t fear them, the resistance is too strong and capable of confronting them,” said Mr Nakhleh. “We hit the belly of Israel. The prime minister and leaders of Israel were forced to go to shelters. Israel wants calm. Egypt wants it to stop the bloodshed. We also want to preserve our dignity as Palestinians. The siege on Gaza Strip should be lifted, the crossings should be opened, the Palestinians should be treated well. We will not accept a humiliating offer.”
In Jerusalem, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said Israel sought “a long-term arrangement” and laid out strict conditions for any possible ceasefire.
“The first and absolute condition for a truce is stopping all fire from Gaza,” said Mr Liberman before meeting French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius on Sunday, adding that all militant factions would have to commit to cease rocket fire and there could be no further smuggling of weapons into Gaza.
In London, Foreign Secretary William Hague warned Israel that past experience proved it risked losing the support even of its closest allies if it embarked on a ground invasion. He today repeated his calls for a ceasefire.
His comments were echoed by President Obama, who told reporters Sunday that it would be “preferable” if Israel exercised its right to self-defence “without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza.”