GAZA, (Reuters) – Israel launched air strikes on Gaza for a second day on Sunday, piling pressure on Hamas after killing more than 270 people in one of the bloodiest days in 60 years of conflict between the Palestinians and the Jewish state.
Israeli leaders said the campaign was a response to almost daily rocket and mortar fire by Gaza militants that intensified after Hamas, an Islamist group in charge of the coastal enclave Israel quit in 2005, ended a six-month ceasefire a week ago.
“Right now, we are not considering an end to the fighting,” Israeli Cabinet Secretary Oved Yehezkel said on Israel Radio. “We have the time, patience and means … to return life in southern Israel to normal.”
Under clear morning skies, an Israeli air strike destroyed the headquarters of Hamas’s al-Aqsa television stations, which continued broadcasting from an unknown location. Israeli aircraft also attacked a training facility for Hamas fighters.
Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets across the border, including one that police said landed in open territory about 30 km (18 miles) inside southern Israel. No casualties were reported.
Dozens of Israeli armoured vehicles massed along the Gaza border for a possible ground invasion and the U.N. Security Council called early on Sunday for a halt to the violence.
Israeli military affairs commentators said the Israeli offensive did not appear to be aimed at retaking the Gaza Strip or destroying the territory’s Hamas government — ambitious goals that could prove difficult and politically risky to achieve ahead of Israel’s Feb. 10 parliamentary election.
Instead, they said, Israel — after an air bombardment on Saturday — wanted to strengthen its deterrence power and force Hamas into a new truce that would lead to a long-term halt to cross-border rocket salvoes.
Israel said its warplanes carried out about 100 strikes on Saturday and that Palestinian militants had fired some 70 rockets at the Jewish state, killing one Israeli man.
Palestinian medical officials said on Sunday 271 Palestinians were killed in 24 hours of Israeli attacks. More than 700 were wounded in Saturday’s attacks, they said.
“Palestine has never seen an uglier massacre,” said Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. His Islamist group, which has controlled the Gaza Strip since June 2007, vowed revenge including suicide bombings in Israel’s “cafes and streets”.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said on television: “There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight.”
In a show of national unity, Israel’s leading political parties suspended electioneering for the Feb. 10 ballot, which opinion polls forecast the right-wing Likud of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will win.
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the head of the ruling centrist Kadima party, called for international support against “an extremist Islamist organisation … that is being supported by Iran”, Israel’s arch-foe.
U.S. President George W. Bush’s administration, in its final weeks in office, put the onus on Hamas to prevent more violence.
Aid groups said they feared the Israeli operation could lead to a humanitarian crisis in the poor coastal enclave, home to 1.5 million Palestinians half of whom depend on food aid.
Gaza hospitals said they were running out of medical supplies because of a long-standing Israeli-led blockade.
On Saturday, black smoke billowed over Gaza City after Israel bombed more than 40 security compounds. Uniformed bodies lay in a pile and the wounded writhed in pain at a graduation ceremony for new recruits hosted by Hamas.
Saturday’s death toll was the highest for a single day in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since 1948, when the Jewish state was established.
Hamas, which won a parliamentary election in 2006 but was shunned by Western powers over its refusal to renounce violence and recognise Israel, estimated at least 180 members of its security forces had been killed with at least 15 women and some children.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah forces were routed in Gaza when Hamas won control last year, said Israel’s action was “criminal” and urged world powers to intervene.