JERUSALEM — Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Saturday leveled a mosque and hit a home for the disabled, killing two handicapped women in an intensified bombardment that accompanied diplomatic efforts to mediate a ceasefire with the Islamist group Hamas.
The death toll from Israeli attacks continued to climb. The Gaza health ministry said that 135 people had been killed and more than 1,100 injured in the five days since Israel launched its offensive against Hamas. The United Nations said that more than two-thirds of the dead were civilians.
Israel said the bombardment from air, sea and land was intended to quell rocket fire from Gaza and deliver a serious blow to Hamas, which despite the Israeli onslaught has maintained its rocket-firing capabilities.
The militant group fired a volley of rockets at the Tel Aviv area on Saturday night after broadcasting advance warning of the attack to Israelis in Hebrew. Three rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and there was no damage or casualties, the army said.
Warning sirens also went off in Jerusalem as three rockets landed in West Bank areas to the south, near Bethlehem and in Hebron.
In northern Israel, at least two rockets fired by militants in Lebanon slammed into open areas, the army said, setting off alarms in neighboring communities. Israeli artillery responded to the attack, the second in the area in as many days.
In New York, the United Nations Security Council called for a “reinstitution of the November 2012 ceasefire” that ended a previous Israeli offensive in Gaza. A unanimous council statement called for a de-escalation of violence, restoration of calm and a resumption of peace talks.
British foreign minister William Hague called for “urgent concerted international action to secure a cease-fire” and said he would discuss that goal with his American, French and German counterparts in Vienna on Sunday.
Tony Blair, the envoy of the so-called Quartet of Middle East mediators – the United States, the UN, the European Union and Russia – met Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to prod him into a more active role in mediating a truce. Egypt has brokered such ceasefires in the past, but Sisi’s hostility to Hamas has made him reluctant to intervene.
Even as Israel signaled that it would step up its military campaign, announcing plans to order an evacuation of areas of the northern Gaza Strip ahead of a fierce assault, it held open the possibility of a diplomatic end to the crisis. The goal was to achieve calm for an extended period, and “it will be achieved either militarily or diplomatically,” said a senior official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Israeli strikes in Gaza on Saturday targeted charities and welfare institutions suspected of links to Hamas. In a strike on a home for the handicapped in the town of Beit Lahiya, two disabled women were killed, Palestinians reported.
A mosque in the Nuseirat refugee camp was reduced to rubble, and the army said later that it had contained a cache of rockets.
Strikes on homes, initially directed at family residences of military operatives, were broadened to include houses of political activists.
In Nuseirat, an attack destroyed the home of Issam Daalees, a prominent political figure in Hamas said to be in charge of the group’s finances.
Six people were killed in an attack in the Sheikh Radwan neighborhood in Gaza City, Palestinians reported. Earlier, Palestinians reported that three militants were killed in another strike in Gaza City. The Israeli army said it had also targeted rocket launchers, weapons depots and “militant compounds.”
Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, expressed concern on Friday about the Israeli strikes on residential homes, which have killed dozens of civilians, according to reports from Gaza.
“We have received deeply disturbing reports that many of the civilian casualties, including of children, occurred as a result of strikes on homes,” Pillay said in a statement. “Such reports raise serious doubt about whether the Israeli strikes have been in accordance with international humanitarian law and international human rights law.”
The Israeli army says that the homes it has attacked were legitimate military targets because they were used by militants to direct their operations. Army announcements have referred to the houses as command and control centers.
The military said that since the start of the offensive in Gaza it had shelled 1,200 targets in the crowded coastal enclave. Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Saturday that 900 buildings had been either leveled or damaged, and more than 2,000 rockets stocked by militants destroyed.
Still, fresh salvos of rockets were fired by Gaza militants on Saturday at towns in southern Israel, but there were no reports of casualties, as warning sirens alerted people to seek shelter and some rockets were intercepted. More than 770 rockets and mortar rounds have been fired at Israel since the start of the Gaza offensive, the army said.
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org