Dead, wounded fill hospitals in the Gaza Strip

Dead, wounded fill hospitals in the Gaza Strip

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Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza Strip was full of wounded and dead civilians on Wednesday night. (Source: AVN TRT/CNN) Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza Strip was full of wounded and dead civilians on Wednesday night. (Source: AVN TRT/CNN)
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JERUSALEM (CNN) - A new wave of Israeli air strikes battered areas of Gaza early Thursday, continuing the deadly onslaught aimed at stopping militant rocket fire into Israel. The days-long aerial bombardment of Gaza has killed at least 81 Palestinians, including women and children, and injured more than 500 since it began Monday, according to Palestinian officials.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the offensive would be expanded and continue "until the firing at our communities stops and quiet is restored."

But there was no sign that Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza were backing down as rockets continued to streak over the border into southern Israel. No Israelis have been killed so far in the rocket attacks.

Four rockets were fired over Jerusalem on Thursday, Israel's military said, but two of them were intercepted and the others hit open areas.

Some Israeli officials have hinted at the possibility of a ground offensive in Gaza, although questions remain about the government's appetite for such a conflict.

Netanyahu didn't specify what the expansion of the current operation would entail, but he said Israel's military "is prepared for all possibilities."

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at a news conference in Beijing, said that the United States supports Israel's right to defend itself and that a de-escalation depends on Hamas actions.

Kerry said he has been in touch with Israeli and Palestinian leaders about working toward a cease-fire, but as long as rockets are being fired into Israel, the situation remains complicated.

Sides speak at U.N. Security Council meeting

Israel and the Palestinians laid out their positions at a U.N. Security Council meeting Thursday, where there were no surprises.

Ambassador Riyad Mansour, permanent observer of the State of Palestine to the United Nations, accused Israel of "terrorizing our people, killing dozens of civilians and injuring hundreds."

Allegations by Israel that Palestinians are using human shields are "audacious," he said, and he rejected the argument that Israel is defending itself.

Israel "deliberately carries out reprisals and collective punishment against the Palestinian people in declared retaliation and revenge ... for the killing of the three Israeli settlers, which the Palestinian leadership has clearly condemned," Mansour said.

Israel, for its part, called on the Security Council to condemn Hamas and its launching of rockets across the border.

Ron Prosor, Israeli ambassador to the U.N., played a recording of a siren during the middle of his remarks, to show how Israelis only have 15 seconds, he said, to run for cover.

"Asking Israel to show restraint while our cities are under constant attack is like asking the fire brigade to battle an inferno with nothing more than buckets of water," he said.

Ground offensive?

Israeli President Shimon Peres, whose role is largely ceremonial and is not involved in setting policy, said in an exclusive interview with CNN's Becky Anderson that he believed a ground offensive "may happen quite soon" unless Hamas stops firing rockets at Israel.

"We warned them. We asked them to stop it," Peres told Anderson. "We waited one day, two days, three days and they continued, and they spread their fire on more areas in Israel."

While Peres was speaking on his own and his position may not outline an official government policy, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz earlier told CNN that a ground operation "might become necessary."

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, meanwhile, convened an emergency meeting of his Cabinet on Wednesday to discuss the crisis.

"This war is not against Hamas or another political party, but it is against the Palestinian people," he told the media afterward. "What do you call this crime? What is this crime known under international law? To kill entire families, is this collective punishment?

"This is called collective genocide."

A Hamas spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri, said Israel's threat to launch a "stupid" ground offensive didn't scare anyone, and fighters from Hamas' military wing were ready to face off with Israel's "coward" soldiers in Gaza.

Rising death toll in Gaza

The comments came as the death toll rose in Gaza, where the Israel Defense Forces has struck at 785 Hamas targets since launching its offensive Monday. It said it hit more than 100 different targets between midnight and about 7 a.m. Thursday.

The IDF has said its targets include rocket launchers, tunnels and the homes of senior Hamas leaders, which the IDF describes as "command centers."

Among the dead are 22 children and 15 women, including an 18-month-old baby and an 80-year-old woman, according to information from the Palestinian Health Ministry.

The Palestine Liberation Organization said Israeli bombs have hit civilian infrastructure, including a line that provides water to a refugee camp and a sewage plant.

The PLO shared a list with 86 names of what it says are victims of Israeli air strikes, which includes at least six children under age 10 among the dead.

The IDF has not responded to the allegations that it has targeted civilian infrastructure but said it uses phone calls and drops empty shells on roofs - what it calls "roof knocking" - to warn civilians that air strikes are imminent.

In one case, members of a family returned to a house in Gaza shortly after having been warned to evacuate it, said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, a military spokesman. They were caught in the air strike.

He called their deaths a tragedy, saying, "This is not what the IDF does."

The Israeli Cabinet has authorized the military to call up 40,000 troops if needed. That is 10,000 more than were called up during Israel's offensive into Gaza in November 2012. Only about 1,000 have been mobilized so far.

Teens' deaths set off latest crisis

The region has many depressing precedents when it comes to violence. Palestinians revolted twice in the past three decades against Israel's occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Israel conquered and occupied those territories in a June 1967 war. Gaza is now under the control of Hamas.

In late 2008 and early 2009, Israel carried out air strikes and then a ground offensive against Hamas in Gaza that killed roughly 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. The November 2012 Israeli offensive sparked a bloody eight-day conflict that ended in a cease-fire.

In this case, tensions boiled over after three Israeli teens, including one with dual U.S. citizenship, were kidnapped and killed in the West Bank. Israel blames Hamas for the deaths, but the group has denied any involvement.

Last week, only days after the bodies of the Israelis were discovered, a Palestinian teen was abducted and later found dead in Jerusalem. Israeli police have arrested suspects and say there's a "strong indication" that it was a revenge killing.

Tariq Abu Khdeir, a 15-year-old American cousin of the slain Palestinian teen, was arrested by Israeli police amid the ensuing protests in Jerusalem. A video showed him being brutally beaten by two men in the uniforms of Israeli security forces, prompting widespread outrage.

Israeli authorities said Thursday that after an investigation of the incident, they have suspended for 15 days a police officer who is suspected of committing "serious violent offenses."

The Israeli Department for the Investigation of Police is considering criminal charges against the officer, who is in a special undercover unit, and he has been summoned for a hearing, the agency said in a statement.

Multiple threats

The IDF said 72 rockets rained down on Israel on Wednesday, and more were fired early Thursday. Some came down in unpopulated areas, while others were intercepted by the country's Iron Dome defense system over Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Dimona, the IDF said.

Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza are believed to have about 10,000 rockets of varying ranges, according to the Israeli military. Israel has said some 3.5 million residents live in areas within reach of the rockets.

Israel says it's also facing other threats from Hamas. The IDF said it killed attackers who tried to enter southern Israel by sea Tuesday.

"Israel has been attacked by Hamas in Gaza from the air, with all of those missiles and rockets, through the sea, those commandos," Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Wednesday. "Those terrorists came through the sea through the Mediterranean in boats from Gaza. And we've also had an attempted attack underground - they've been tunneling under the frontier - trying to bring in terrorists that way to Israel."

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