Israel targets 100 sites in Gaza; U.N. calls for ‘maximum restraint’

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(FILE PHOTO) Ahmed al-Ja'abari (right), the head of Hamas' military wing, was killed in an air strike in Gaza Wednesday, November 14, 2012.

(CNN) — Israel continued a blistering assault early Thursday against Gaza, targeting what it described as 100 terror sites in response to ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants, a move that has raised fears of a widening conflict that could lead to an Israeli ground assault.

The countering Israeli and Palestinian attacks prompted the U.N. Security Council to call an emergency closed door session late Wednesday in an attempt to de-escalate the crisis. International diplomats hope to stave off a repeat of Israel’s widely condemned 2008 assault that saw its forces go into Gaza after a similar spate of rocket attacks by Palestinian militants.

Q&A: Gaza strikes could be beginning of ground attack

“In short, the message that must resonate from this meeting is ‘the violence has to stop,’ ” Hardeep Singh Puri, president of the Security Council for the month of November, told reporters.

Even as the Security Council’s member nations called for “maximum restraint so the situation does not deteriorate any further,” Israeli and Palestinian officials reported countering airstrikes and assaults early Thursday.

At least three people were killed and four wounded when a rocket struck an apartment building in the town of Kiryat Malakhi on Thursday, an Israeli police spokesman said. Thirteen people, including two children, were also reportedly killed in the airstrikes in Gaza on Thursday, said Dr. Asraf el-Qdra of Medical Aid for Palestinians. Of the casualties, nine were Hamas militants, he said.

More than 120 people have been wounded since the Israeli strikes began this week in Gaza, the officials said.

The Israel Defense Forces said overnight it targeted “100 medium and long range rocket launch and infrastructure sites across the Gaza Strip,” according to a statement released Thursday morning. That followed reports of more than 40 rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, according to CNN’s Sara Sidner, who was reporting on the Israeli side of the Erez Crossing on Gaza’s northern border.

At one point Thursday morning, 13 rockets were fired in quick succession from Gaza into Israel, “and you can see the trail of smoke,” she said. That’s in addition to the 35 rockets reportedly fired overnight at Israel, she said.

Sidner and a CNN film crew were forced to take cover after rockets struck near the border crossing. “Military here says it appears the crossing is being targeted,” she said.

The latest round of countering strikes follows claims by Palestinian military groups of more than 75 strikes by Israeli warplanes and ships Wednesday.

The strikes Wednesday killed the chief of the al-Qassam Brigade, Hamas’ military arm, and at least eight others, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials, an attack that saw al-Qassam threaten the Israel Defense Forces on its Twitter feed.

It wrote: “@idfspokesperson Our blessed hands will reach your leaders and soldiers wherever they are (You Opened Hell Gates on Yourselves).”

Ahmed al-Ja’abari, the popular and influential head of Hamas’ al-Qassam Brigade, was killed when the car he was riding in was targeted by an Israeli strike, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.

Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian representative to the United Nations, said the killing amounted to an assassination.

“We condemn the killing of any Palestinian, regardless of their political affiliation,” he said.

“Assassination is illegal from the point of view of international law, and Israel is committing a crime through the assassination of Palestinian individuals and Palestinian leaders.”

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that al-Ja’abari headed “a terror military machine.”

“This is the man with blood on his hands. This man is a known and wanted terrorist,” he said. “In taking him out, Israel was acting legitimately.”

It is unclear what, if any, impact the Security Council’s call for restraint will have after days of attacks and counterattacks that have seen militant groups firing rockets into southern Israel, prompting Israeli retaliatory strikes.

The Israeli and Palestinian representatives at the United Nations traded blame, with Israel’s representative dismissing claims by Mansour that the attacks were timed to derail a November 29 vote on a Palestinian bid for enhanced status at the United Nations.

“This all started by an antitank missile that was launched against an Israeli jeep. From who? From Hamas, an internationally recognized terrorist organization, that has turned Gaza into a dump of ammunition coming in from weapons from Iran, from Libya, from Sudan that have been launched against Israeli civilians day in and day out,” Ron Prosor, Israel’s representative to the United Nations, told reporters.

“This is unacceptable. Every state, every nation, every government has a right to defend its cities. We will not allow that to continue. Any distortion of that sequence of events or facts will not only not lead to peace in the region, but on the contrary will lead to additional violence.”

The Israel Defense Forces warned residents in several communities in Gaza on Thursday to stay away from Hamas and its facilities.

“For your own safety, take responsibility and avoid being present in the vicinity of Hamas operatives and facilities and those of other terror organizations that pose a risk to your safety,” warning leaflets said.

The IDF said the warning was valid until “quiet is restored to the region.”

Israel, meanwhile, warned its residents living near Gaza to avoid school and work.

The escalating violence is likely to further erode Israel’s fragile relationship with Egypt, which recalled its ambassador to Israel on Wednesday in protest over the ongoing strikes. It also delivered a formal protest to the Israeli government.

President Barack Obama spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy about the crisis in Gaza, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said during the Security Council meeting, according to a readout provided by the United States.

“President Obama told Prime Minister Netanyahu that he understands and supports Israel’s right to self-defense in light of countless rocket attacks on Israeli civilians being launched from Gaza. The President urged that Prime Minister Netanyahu make every effort to avoid civilian casualties, and agreed that Hamas needs to stop the attacks on Israel and allow the situation to de-escalate,” she said.

Rice said Obama also spoke with Morsy, “given Egypt’s critical role in regional security.”

“Both agreed that everyone’s interests are best served by ensuring that this situation does not escalate,” she said.

The UK foreign secretary blamed the escalation in violence on Hamas and its repeated rocket attacks.

“I call on those in the region with influence over Hamas to use that influence to bring about an end to the attacks,” William Hague said in a statement released Thursday.

“I also strongly urge Israel to do their utmost to reduce tension, avoid civilian casualties and increase the prospects for both sides to live in peace. It is imperative to avoid the risk of a spiral of violence.”

This article was written and provided by Sara Sidner and Talal Abu Rahma with the CNN Wire. Journalist Per Nyberg and CNN’s Saad Abedine, Kareem Khadder and Chelsea J. Carter contributed to the report. 

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