Two Palestinian rockets have landed in densely populated Tel Aviv, Israel, as militants barraged the country with more than 200 rockets on Thursday. The attacks follow the latest bout between the Hamas and Israel—with weeks of rockets attacks on Israel from the Gaza Strip, and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes that killed Hamas military chief Ahmed Jabari and attacked rocket launchers.
Late in the day Thursday, Israel signaled a ground operation might be imminent, as forces moved toward the border area with Gaza. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said he had authorized the army to call up to 30,000 additional troops.
Military officials said the moves were to prepare for the possibility of a ground invasion, but stressed no decision had been made. But Israel TV stations said a ground offensive was expected Friday.
The fighting, the heaviest in four years, has killed three Israelis and 15 Palestinians in two days and brought life to a standstill on both sides of the border.
While southern Israeli areas near Gaza have long coped with rocket fire, the attacks on the Tel Aviv area illustrated the significant capabilities that Hamas militants have developed. Gaza militants had previously hit Rishon Lezion before but never reached Tel Aviv, roughly 70 kilometers, or 50 miles, north of the Strip.
The attacks on Tel Aviv set air raid sirens blaring and sparked panic in the streets of the normally laid-back commercial and cultural capital. Israeli Channel 2 TV showed panicked Tel Aviv residents running for cover and lying down on the ground after the sirens began wailing. Diners hid under tables in a restaurant, and traffic snarled on the city’s main north-south highway. There were no injuries.
Defense officials say Israel is prepared to launch a ground invasion into Gaza if necessary. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the army was prepared for a “significant widening” of its Gaza offensive.
“No government would tolerate a situation where nearly a fifth of its people live under a constant barrage of rockets and missile fire, and Israel will not tolerate this situation,” he said. “This is why my government has instructed the Israeli Defense Forces to conduct surgical strikes against the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza. And this is why Israel will continue to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people.”
Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh eulogized Jabari in a televised speech on Thursday night.
“What a martyrdom and what a glorious day,” he said. “Congratulations. Rest in peace. Feel blessed.”
He said Palestinians remained steadfast and defiant during the 22 days of the last Gaza war in 2009 and could hold out for even longer.
In Washington, the United States lined up behind Israel.
“We support Israel’s right to defend itself, and we encourage Israel to continue to take every effort to avoid civilian casualties,” State Department spokesman Mark Toner said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.