UPDATE 8-Rockets hits near Tel Aviv as Gaza death toll rises

Nidal al-Mughrabi
November 15, 2012

* Missile lands close to Tele Aviv

* Gaza rocket hits Israeli house, kills three

* Hamas shocked by killing of top commander, vows revenge

* U.N. Security Council calls for end to violence

* Rocket explodes south of Tel Aviv

GAZA, Nov 15 (Reuters) - A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip

landed close to Tel Aviv on Thursday, in the first attack on

Israel's biggest city in 20 years, raising the stakes in a

military showdown between Israel and the Palestinians that is

moving towards all-out war.

Earlier, a Hamas rocket killed three Israelis north of the

Gaza Strip, drawing the first blood from Israel as the

Palestinian death toll rose to 15.

On the second day of an assault that Israel said might last

many days and culminate in a ground attack, its warplanes bombed

targets in and around Gaza city, shaking tall buildings.

Plumes of smoke and dust furled into a sky laced with the

vapour trails of outgoing rockets over the crowded city, where

four young children killed on Wednesday were buried.

The sudden conflict, launched by Israel with the killing of

Hamas's military chief, pours oil on the fire of a Middle East

already ablaze with two years of revolution and an

out-of-control civil war in Syria.

Egypt's new Islamist President Mohamed Mursi, viewed by

Hamas as a protector, led a chorus of denunciation of the

Israeli strikes by Palestinian allies.

Mursi's prime minister, Hisham Kandil, will visit Gaza on

Friday with other Egyptian officials in a show of support for

the enclave, an Egyptian cabinet official said. Israel promised

that the delegation would come to no harm.

Israel says its attack is in response to escalating missile

strikes from Gaza. Israel's bombing has not yet reached the

saturation level seen before it last invaded Gaza in 2008, but

Israeli officials have said a ground assault is still an option.

Israeli police said three Israelis died when a rocket hit a

four-story building in the town of Kiryat Malachi, some 25 km

(15 miles) north of Gaza, the first Israeli fatalities of the

latest conflict to hit the coastal region.

Air raid sirens sent residents running for shelter in Tel

Aviv, Israel's commercial centre which has not been hit by a

rocket since the 1991 Gulf War. A security source said it landed

in the sea. Tel Aviv residents said an explosion could be heard.

The Tel Aviv metropolitan area holds more than 3 million

people, more than 40 percent of Israel's population.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas was

committing a double war crime, by firing at Israeli civilians

and hiding behind Palestinians civilians.

"I hope that Hamas and the other terrorist organisations in

Gaza got the message," he said. "If not, Israel is prepared to

take whatever action is necessary to defend our people."

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Israel would pay a heavy

price "for this open war which they initiated".

After watching powerlessly from the sidelines of the Arab

Spring, Israel has been thrust to the centre of a volatile new

world in which Islamist Hamas hopes that Mursi and his newly

dominant Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt will be its protectors.

"The Israelis must realise that this aggression is

unacceptable and would only lead to instability in the region

and would negatively and greatly impact the security of the

region," Mursi said.

The new conflict will be the biggest test yet of Mursi's

commitment to Egypt's 1979 peace treaty with Israel, which the

West views as the bedrock of Middle East peace.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which brought Mursi to power in an

election after the downfall of autocrat Hosni Mubarak, has

called for a "Day of Rage" in Arab capitals on Friday. The

Brotherhood is seen as the spiritual mentors of Hamas.

ASSASSINATION

The offensive began on Wednesday when a precision Israeli

airstrike killed Hamas military mastermind Ahmed Al-Jaabari.

Israel then began shelling the enclave from land, air and sea.

The 15 killed in Gaza included Jaabari and six Hamas

fighters plus eight civilians, among them a pregnant woman with

twins, an 11-month old boy and three infants, according to the

enclave's health ministry. Medics reported at least 130 wounded.

At Jaabari's funeral on Thursday, supporters fired guns in

the air celebrating news of the Israeli deaths, to chants for

Jaabari of "You have won."

His corpse was borne through the streets wrapped in a

bloodied white sheet. But senior Hamas figures were not in

evidence, wary of Israel's warning they are in its crosshairs.

The Israeli army said 156 targets were hit in Gaza, 126 of

them rocket launchers. It said 200 rockets had struck Israel

since the start of the operation, 135 of them since midnight.

Israel's Iron Dome interceptor system has so far shot down

more than 80 rockets headed for residential areas, the military

said.

Expecting days or more of fighting and almost inevitable

civilian casualties, Israeli warplanes dropped leaflets in Gaza

telling residents to stay away from Hamas and other militants.

The United States condemned Hamas, shunned by the West as an

obstacle to peace for its refusal to renounce violence and

recognise Israel.

"There is no justification for the violence that Hamas and

other terrorist organisations are employing against the people

of Israel," said Mark Toner, deputy State Department spokesman.

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late on

Wednesday, but took no action.

In France, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabious said: "It would

be a catastrophe if there is an escalation in the region. Israel

has the right to security but it won't achieve it through

violence. The Palestinians also have the right to a state."

"GATES OF HELL"

Israel's sworn enemy Iran, which supports and arms Hamas,

condemned the Israeli offensive as "organised terrorism".

Lebanon's Iranian-backed Shi'ite militia Hezbollah, which has

its own rockets aimed at the Jewish state, denounced strikes on

Gaza as "criminal aggression", but held its fire.

Oil prices rose more than $1 as the crisis grew. Israeli

shares and bonds fell, while Israel's currency rose off

Wednesday's lows, when the shekel slid more than 1

percent to a two-month low against the dollar.

A second Gaza war has loomed on the horizon for months as

waves of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes grew

increasingly intense and frequent. Netanyahu, favoured in polls

to win a Jan. 22 general election, said on Wednesday the Gaza

operation could be stepped up.

His cabinet has granted authorisation for the mobilisation

of military reserves if required to press the offensive, dubbed

"Pillar of Defence" in English and "Pillar of Cloud" in Hebrew

after the Israelites' divine sign of deliverance in Exodus.

Hamas has said the killing of its top commander in a

precise, death-from-above airstrike, would "open the gates of

hell" for Israel. It appealed to Egypt to halt the assault.

Israel has been anxious since Mubarak was toppled last year

in the Arab Spring revolts that replaced secularist strongmen

with elected Islamists in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, and brought

civil war to Israel's other big neighbour Syria.

Cairo recalled its ambassador from Israel on Wednesday.

Israel's ambassador left Cairo on what was called a routine home

visit and Israel said its embassy would stay open.

Gaza has an estimated 35,000 Palestinian fighters, no match

for Israel's F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter gunships,

Merkava tanks and other modern weapons systems in the hands of a

conscript force of 175,000, with 450,000 in reserve.