GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas in Gaza hit a mosque and a center for the disabled where two women were killed Saturday, raising the Palestinian death toll from the offensive to more than 120, Palestinian officials said.
The Israeli military said the mosque concealed rockets like those used in the barrage of nearly 700 fired by Gaza militants at Israel over the five-day offensive, while saying it was investigating claims about the other sites hit. However, the strikes in the densely populated Gaza Strip show the challenge facing Israel as it considers a ground operation in the region and potential further dangers posed to civilians.
While there have been no fatalities in Israel from the continued rocket fire, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said overnight Israeli strikes raised the death toll there to over 120, with more than 920 wounded.
Hamas militants have been hit hard. Though the exact breakdown of casualties remains unclear, dozens of the dead also have been civilians.
The offensive showed no signs of slowing down Saturday as Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said his country should ready itself for several more days of fighting.
“We have accumulated achievements as far as the price Hamas is paying and we are continuing to destroy significant targets of it and other terror organizations,” Yaalon said after a meeting with top security officials. “We will continue to punish it until quiet and security returns to southern Israel and the rest of the country.”
Hamas said Israel hit a pair of mosques in its offensive. The competing claims could not be immediately reconciled, though Hamas said it hoped the mosque attack would galvanize support in the Muslim world.
“The bombing of two mosques in Gaza overnight shows how barbaric this enemy is and how much is it hostile to Islam,” said Husam Badran, a Hamas spokesman in Doha, Qatar. “This terrorism gives us the right to broaden our response to deter this occupier.”
The Israeli military released an aerial photo of the mosque it said it hit, saying Hamas hid rockets in it right next to another religious site and civilian homes. It said Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza militant groups use this tactic of abusing religious sites to conceal weapons and establish underground tunnel networks, deliberately endangering its own civilians.
“Hamas terrorists systematically exploit and choose to put Palestinians in Gaza in harm’s way and continue to locate their positions among civilian areas and mosques, proving once more their disregard for human life and holy sites,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.
Israel’s military says it has struck more than 1,100 targets, including rocket launchers, command centers and weapon manufacturing and storage facilities. However, Gaza officials said the strikes also hit affiliated charities and banks, as well as the home for the disabled and the mosques.
Gaza militants’ barrage of rockets appeared to tail off somewhat Saturday morning before a new round resumed that afternoon. The “Iron Dome,” a U.S.-funded, Israel-developed rocket defense system, has intercepted more than 130 incoming rockets, preventing any Israeli fatalities so far. A handful of Israelis have been wounded by rockets that slipped through.
The most serious strike was from a rocket that struck a gas station Friday in the southern city of Ashdod. A house in Beersheba suffered a direct hit though the family living there was not home.
As a precaution, the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv relocated its personnel assigned to Beersheba. However, militant rockets have reached further into Israel than ever before, with air raid sirens sounding even in the northern city of Haifa, 100 miles (160 kilometers) away.
The frequent rocket fire has disrupted daily life in Israel, particularly in southern communities that have absorbed the brunt of the rocket fire. Israelis mostly have stayed close to home. Television channels air non-stop coverage of the violence and radio broadcasts are interrupted live with every air raid siren warning of incoming rockets.
The offensive is the heaviest fighting since a similar eight-day campaign in November 2012 to stop Gaza rocket fire. The outbreak of violence follows the kidnappings and killings of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, and the kidnapping and killing of a Palestinian teenager in an apparent revenge attack.
Israel has pummeled Gaza at twice the rate of the 2012 operation and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to press on with the campaign until there is a complete halt to rocket attacks from the seaside Palestinian territory. Israel has massed thousands of troops along the border in preparation for a possible ground invasion, with soldiers atop vehicles mobilized and ready to move into Gaza if the order arrives.
After days of little criticism, Israel has begun coming under more international pressure as Palestinian casualties have grown. The United States and European leaders have stressed Israel’s right to defend itself. But the United Nations has expressed its concern over civilian deaths in Gaza and anti-Israel protests have taken place in Europe. In the West Bank, Hamas supporters clashed with Israeli troops over the Gaza offensive.
A senior Arab league official said Arab foreign ministers will hold an emergency meeting in Cairo on Monday to discuss the continued Israeli offensive and measures to urge the international community to pressure Israel.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas requested the meeting, which was approved by several Arab foreign ministers in coordination with the Arab League. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief journalists.
Heller reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writers Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo contributed to this report.