Israel, Hamas slide towards major Gaza conflict

Israel, Hamas slide towards major Gaza conflict
Smoke rises following what witnesses said was an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on July 8.

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories - Five Palestinians were killed on Tuesday as Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza at the start of a new campaign to stamp out rocket fire by Hamas militants on southern Israel.

It was the most serious flare-up in and around the territory since November 2012 and came as Israel struggled to contain a wave of violence in Arab towns over the grisly murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas demanded Israel "immediately stop" its air campaign, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, and asked the international community to put pressure on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But Netanyahu was expected to order a "significant broadening" of the operation at an afternoon meeting with security chiefs and instruct the army to "take off the gloves," a source close to him told army radio.

After nearly four weeks of restraint in the face of intensifying rocket fire on the south, Israel appeared bent on dealing the Islamist Hamas movement a heavy blow, with officials speaking of a "staged escalation." In central Gaza, one man was killed in an air strike west of Nusseirat refugee camp, with medics naming him as Ashraf Yassin.

Witnesses said he was a militant of the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamist Hamas movement.

Shortly afterwards four men were killed when a missile slammed into a car in the centre of Gaza City, the emergency services said, without giving further details.

Three more militants were killed in air strikes on Monday, two from the Popular Resistance Committees and one from Hamas. Another five Hamas militants died when a tunnel collapsed near the southern city of Rafah.

A total of 29 Palestinians were injured on Tuesday, two of them seriously, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.

The Israeli army said the air force and the navy had struck around 50 "terror sites" overnight in a joint operation which had three aims - returning calm to the south, "eliminating Hamas's capabilities" and destroying Gaza's "terror infrastructure." It also destroyed the homes of four Hamas militants it accused of firing on Israel.

Ground assault?

The Israeli army was preparing all options to stamp out militant rocket fire from Gaza, including a ground assault, a senior official told AFP.

"The army is preparing for all possible scenarios, including an invasion or a ground operation," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"We have been instructed by the political echelon to hit Hamas hard," military spokesman General Moti Almoz told the radio, saying the operation would take place "in stages".

He also confirmed Israel was preparing for a possible ground offensive.

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