GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip
Palestinian militants took aim at Jerusalem for the first time Friday, launching a rocket attack on the holy city in a major escalation of hostilities as Israel pressed forward with a relentless campaign of airstrikes in the Gaza Strip.
Israel called up thousands of reservists and massed troops along the border with Gaza, signaling a ground invasion of the densely populated seaside strip could be imminent. The attack on Jerusalem, along with an earlier strike on the metropolis of Tel Aviv, raised the likelihood that Israel would soon move in.
Israel triggered the current fighting by assassinating the military chief of the ruling Hamas militant group Wednesday, then conducting dozens of airstrikes on weapons-storage sites used by rocket squads. The sudden attack came in response to days of heavy rocket fire from Gaza.
Israeli leaders have threatened to widen the operation if the rocket fire doesn’t halt. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said options included the possible assassination of Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, and other top leaders.
“Every time that Hamas fires there will be a more and more severe response,” he told Channel 2 TV. “I really recommend all the Hamas leadership in Gaza not to try us again. ... Nobody is immune there, not Haniyeh and not anybody else.”
While Israeli military officials insist they have inflicted heavy damage on Hamas, there has been no halt to the militants’ rocket fire. Hundreds of rockets have been fired, including a number of sophisticated weapons never before used.
The rocket attack on Jerusalem was unprecedented, setting off the eerie wail of air raid sirens across the city shortly after the beginning of the Jewish sabbath, a time when roads are empty. Police said the rocket landed in an open area southeast of the city. Earlier Friday, Hamas fired a rocket at Tel Aviv that also landed in an open area.
Israel’s two largest cities have never before been exposed to rocket fire from Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Over the past three days, Israel has struck suspected rocket-launching sites and other Hamas targets in Gaza with scores of airstrikes, while Hamas has fired more than 450 rockets toward Israel. In all, 27 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed.
On Friday, the Israeli army sent text messages to some 12,000 Gaza residents warning them to steer clear of Hamas operatives.
An attack on Jerusalem, claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians as their capital, was especially bold, both for its symbolism and its distance from the Palestinian territory. Located roughly 50 miles from the Gaza border, Jerusalem had been thought to be beyond the range of Gaza rockets.
“We are sending a short and simple message: There is no security for any Zionist on any single inch of Palestine and we plan more surprises,” said Abu Obeida, a spokesman for Hamas’ armed wing.
It marked a bit of a gamble for the militants. The rocket landed near the Palestinian city of Bethlehem and just a few miles from the revered Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem’s Old City, one of Islam’s holiest sites.
Hamas, an Iranian-backed group committed to Israel’s destruction, was badly bruised during its last full-fledged confrontation with Israel four years ago that ended with an informal truce, although rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes on militant operations continued sporadically.