Israeli air strikes kill over 200 in Gaza
GAZA CITY (AFP) – Israel hammered Hamas targets in Gaza on Saturday, killing at least 205 people in retaliation for ongoing rocket fire in one of the bloodiest days of the decades-long Middle East conflict.
Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said "Operation Cast Lead," which has also left some 300 wounded, would continue "as long as necessary."
"The battle will be long and difficult, but the time has come to act and to fight," he said.
Following the mid-morning wave of attacks, which saw some 60 aircraft bomb the impoverished, overcrowded territory, Hamas swiftly responded by firing several dozen rockets into the Jewish state, killing one Israeli.
The Islamist movement, which seized control of Gaza from forces loyal to moderate Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas last year, warned Israelis living near Gaza to "prepare the funeral shrouds."
Air strikes continued sporadically throughout the day and into the evening, with no immediate reports of casualties.
The Palestinian leadership slammed the "massacre," and the European Union, Russia, Britain and France urged both sides to stop the violence .
The United States said Israel should avoid civilian casualties, while the Arab League and several Middle Eastern states slammed Israel for the strikes.
In Gaza, thick clouds of smoke billowed into the sky. Mangled, bloodied and often charred corpses littered the pavement around Hamas security compounds, and frantic relatives flooded hospitals.
Ambulances and private cars rushed the wounded and dead to Al-Shifa hospital, where staff used sheets as makeshift stretchers for some.
There was no space left in the morgue and bodies were piled up in the emergency room and in the corridors, as many of the wounded screamed in pain.
"My brother was still alive when he arrived here, and was talking to me but no one could help him. He died," said Ahmed al-Gharabli, his voice shaking and tears streaming down his cheeks. His brother Baha was a policeman.
Medics said civilians had been hit, but the majority of the victims appeared to be members of Hamas, branded a terror group by Israel and the West.
At least 205 Palestinians were killed and some 300 others wounded, said Dr Moawiya Hassanein, the head of Gaza emergency services.
The bombardment -- which marked one of the bloodiest single days in the 60-year Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- came after days of spiralling violence, with militants firing rockets and Israel vowing a fiery response.
Abbas told AFP from Saudi Arabia that he was in "urgent contact" with numerous countries to stop "the cowardly aggressions and massacres in the Gaza Strip."
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who brokered a six-month Israeli-Hamas truce that expired on December 19, slammed the "Israeli military aggression on the Gaza Strip and blames Israel, as an occupying force, for the victims and the wounded."
He ordered the Rafah crossing -- the only one that bypasses Israel -- to be opened to allow the evacuation of the wounded, dozens of whom had passed through by mid-afternoon, state news agency Mena reported.
Hamas militants warned Israelis living near the border to "prepare the funeral shrouds," vowing that the Islamists' response "was on its way."
One rocket hit the southern Israeli town of Netivot, killing a man and wounding four other people, Israeli medics said.
The air strikes come less than two months ahead of Israeli elections on February 10.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, the head of the governing Kadima party and one of the front-runners for the premier's chair, said that "today there is no other option than a military operation."
"We need to protect our citizens from attack through a military response against the terror infrastructure in Gaza."
Violence in and around Gaza has flared since the truce ended, with militants firing rockets and Israel warning it would respond.
It escalated dramatically on Wednesday, when militants fired more than 80 rockets and mortar rounds in response to a deadly air strike on Gaza.
Hamas said bombs destroyed its security structures across Gaza and killed three senior officials -- the Gaza police chief, the police commander for central Gaza and the head of the group's bodyguard unit.
The bombardment set off angry demonstrations in Israel's Arab towns and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Israel had responded to earlier attacks by tightening the blockade it imposed after Hamas seized Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas in June 2007. But dozens of truckloads of supplies were delivered to Gaza on Friday after Israel decided to temporarily allow in humanitarian aid.
Hamas is sworn to destruction of the Jewish state and has warned that it would retaliate to a major Gaza operation by resuming suicide bombings inside Israel. The last such attack claimed by Hamas was in January 2005.