GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP – Israeli air strikes targeting Hamas in Gaza hit a mosque and a center for the disabled where two women were killed Saturday, raising the Palestinian death toll from the offensive to more than 120, Palestinian officials said.
The Israeli military said the mosque concealed rockets like those used in the barrage of nearly 700 fired by Gaza militants at Israel over the five-day offensive, while saying it was investigating claims about the other sites hit. However, the strikes in the densely populated Gaza Strip show the challenge facing Israel as it considers a ground operation in the region and potential further dangers posed to civilians.
While there have been no fatalities in Israel from the continued rocket fire, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said overnight Israeli strikes raised the death toll there to over 120, with more than 920 wounded.
Hamas militants have been hit hard. Though the exact breakdown of casualties remains unclear, dozens of the dead also have been civilians. The offensive showed no signs of slowing down Saturday as Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said his country should ready itself for several more days of fighting.
“We have accumulated achievements as far as the price Hamas is paying and we are continuing to destroy significant targets of it and other terror organizations,” Yaalon said after a meeting with top security officials. “We will continue to punish it until quiet and security returns to southern Israel and the rest of the country.”
Hamas said Israel hit a pair of mosques in its offensive. The competing claims could not be immediately reconciled, though Hamas said it hoped the mosque attack would galvanize support in the Muslim world.
“The bombing of two mosques in Gaza overnight shows how barbaric this enemy is and how much is it hostile to Islam,” said Husam Badran, a Hamas spokesman in Doha, Qatar. “This terrorism gives us the right to broaden our response to deter this occupier.”
The Israeli military released an aerial photo of the mosque it said it hit, saying Hamas hid rockets in it right next to another religious site and civilian homes. It said Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza militant groups use this tactic of abusing religious sites to conceal weapons and establish underground tunnel networks, deliberately endangering its own civilians.
“Hamas terrorists systematically exploit and choose to put Palestinians in Gaza in harm’s way and continue to locate their positions among civilian areas and mosques, proving once more their disregard for human life and holy sites,” said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.
Israel’s military says it has struck more than 1,100 targets, including rocket launchers, command centers and weapon manufacturing and storage facilities. However, Gaza officials said the strikes also hit affiliated charities and banks, as well as the home for the disabled and the mosques.
Gaza militants’ barrage of rockets appeared to tail off somewhat Saturday morning before a new round resumed that afternoon. The “Iron Dome,” a U.S.-funded, Israel-developed rocket defense system, has intercepted more than 130 incoming rockets, preventing any Israeli fatalities so far. A handful of Israelis have been wounded by rockets that slipped through.