Israel, Gaza trade strikes
JERUSALEM — Israel's 4-day-old air offensive in the Gaza Strip expanded to target Hamas government buildings on Saturday, and Palestinian militants continued firing a torrent of rockets at civilian areas in southern Israel as both sides stepped up diplomatic efforts to win support.
Israeli airstrikes over Gaza accelerated to nearly 200 early in the day, including one hit that reduced the offices of Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to a smoldering concrete heap. That strike, along with others on a police headquarters and smuggling tunnels along the strip's southern border with Egypt, raised questions about whether Israel had broadened its mission to include toppling the Hamas government that rules the coastal strip.
Just before sundown, Hamas said it had shot an Iranian-made Fajr-5 rocket at Tel Aviv, and air raid sirens sounded in that city for the third day in a row. The Israeli military said its newly deployed missile defense battery intercepted the rocket before it landed in the populous coastal city.
Even as airstrikes pounded on Saturday morning, the foreign minister of Tunisia's Islamist-led government, Rafik Abdessalem, arrived in Gaza with a delegation, underscoring Hamas' newfound credibility in a region dramatically altered by the Arab Spring. Abdessalem expressed outrage at what he called Israeli “aggression” and pledged to unite with other Arab countries to end the conflict.
In Cairo, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy, whose prime minister visited Gaza on Friday, held meetings with Turkey's prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and the emir of Qatar, both Hamas supporters, to discuss what Morsy and other regional leaders have promised would be a more robust response to Israel's actions than during past conflicts. By Saturday night, rumors of Morsy, Erdogan and Hamas chairman Khaled Meshaal hashing out a cease-fire plan were swirling but unconfirmed.
Also in Cairo, the Arab League held an emergency meeting of Arab foreign ministers to discuss an Arab response to the conflict. Many participants called for Arab assistance to the Palestinians and a “reconsideration” of Egypt's peace treaty with Israel. But it was unclear whether the usually toothless league would deliver decisive action by the end of its summit.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, took his country's case to European leaders. In conversations with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the prime ministers of Italy, Greece and the Czech Republic, Netanyahu argued that “no country in the world would agree to a situation in which its population lives under a constant missile threat,” according to a government statement.
The Israeli government announced that it was starting a special operations center for public diplomacy, centered on “the unified message that Israel is under fire.”
The White House reiterated its support for the Israeli operation, which the military says is intended to stop rocket fire that has escalated in the four years since Israel last invaded Gaza to stunt attacks by Hamas, an Islamist movement that Israel and the United States consider a terrorist group.
“Israelis have endured far too much of a threat from these rockets for far too long,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, told reporters traveling with President Obama to Asia.
Rhodes declined to comment on the Israelis' choice of targets, but he said White House officials “always underscore the importance of avoiding civilian casualties.”
Gaza deaths at 45
The death toll in Gaza rose to 45 by Saturday evening, health ministry officials said. Three Israelis have been killed by rocket fire from Gaza since the operation began.
An Israeli military spokesman said about 130 rockets were fired from Gaza at Israel on Saturday, 30 of which were intercepted by a missile-defense system known as Iron Dome.
Israel made preparations this week for a possible ground invasion, but there were no further signs of one coming on Saturday.
In a speech in Cairo, Erdogan said the Gaza conflict called for a new era of Egyptian-Turkish cooperation.
“If Turkey and Egypt unite, everybody will be singing of peace in the region. And if we stick together, the region will no longer be dominated by crying and weeping,” he said.
Speakers at the Arab League meeting made the same argument.
“We can no longer accept empty meetings and meaningless resolutions,” said Arab League Chief Nabil Elaraby, addressing the assembly at the start of the meeting. He urged Arab states to adopt a “strict stance” on the conflict.