GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Israeli warplanes retaliating for rocket fire from the Gaza Strip pounded dozens of security compounds across the Hamas-ruled territory in unprecedented waves of airstrikes Saturday, killing more than 200 people and wounding nearly 400 in the single bloodiest day of fighting in years.
Most of those killed were security men, but an unknown number of civilians were also among the dead. Hamas said all of its security installations were hit, threatened to resume suicide attacks, and sent at least 70 rockets and mortar shells crashing into Israeli border communities, according to the Israeli military. One Israeli was killed and at least six people were hurt.
With so many wounded, the Palestinian death toll was likely to rise.
The strikes caused widespread panic and confusion in Gaza, as black clouds of smoke rose above the territory, ruled by Hamas for the past 18 months. Some of the Israeli missiles struck in densely populated areas as children were leaving school, and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children.
“My son is gone, my son is gone,” wailed Said Masri, a 57-year-old shopkeeper, as he sat in the middle of a Gaza City street, slapping his face and covering his head with dust from a bombed-out security compound nearby.
He said he had sent his 9-year-old son out to purchase cigarettes minutes before the airstrikes began and now could not find him. “May I burn like the cigarettes, may Israel burn,” Masri moaned.
The offensive began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired. The Israeli army says Palestinian militants have fired some 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week, and in recent days, Israeli leaders had threatened to launch a major offensive.
“There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting,” said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, vowing to expand the operation if necessary.