(MCT) — GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — An Israeli airstrike Sunday killed at least nine members of the same family — all women and children — in the deadliest single attack and worst civilian tragedy since the fighting in the Gaza Strip began last week.
Though Israel has expressed pride over its five-day military campaign for limiting civilian casualties, the strike against the Dalu home in Gaza City was likely to test the limits of international support it has received in the battle to stop militants from firing rockets at Israeli cities.
Yet despite immediate condemnation by Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, the tragedy did not appear to derail cease-fire negotiations under way in Cairo, where Israeli and Palestinian representatives are meeting. In fact, the high civilian death toll from Sunday’s attack only increased the international pressure on both sides to end hostilities, coming on a day both President Barack Obama and British officials raised concerns about the conflict expanding into a ground war.
Israeli military officials said they were targeting a Hamas militant in his home, but provided no further information. The Dalu family was believed to have links to Hamas’ military wing and had been targeted by Israel before.
But there were conflicting reports about whether the strike killed the home’s owner, Jamal Dalu, or his son Mohamed. Hamas’ Health Ministry put the death toll at 11, which may include two neighbors. More than 20 people were injured.
On its website, the military wing of Hamas said that the attack on the family “will not go unpunished” and that the group had began firing rockets at Israel in response. By Sunday night, Gaza militants had fired 114 rockets at southern Israel, hitting buildings in Beersheba, Sderot and Ashdod. Five people were injured from shrapnel from a rocket in Ofakim, near the Gaza border.
The Israeli missile strike was so strong it destroyed the Dalu family’s three-story building, blowing out windows blocks away and sending a charred mattress flying into the street.
For hours panicked neighbors and rescue workers clung to hope of finding survivors. While a bulldozer pulled apart pieces of the collapsed walls, volunteers in orange vests scrambled over the wreckage and searched for signs of life.
In a grim, heart-wrenching scene that played out over 90 minutes, the bodies of four children were pulled out one after another.
Each time they found a body, some of the men would yell excitedly and wave their hands at the bulldozer’s driver to stop digging, while others would climb down to retrieve the child. As mobs of onlookers chanted “God is great,” a rescue worker would race toward a waiting ambulance with a limp, dust-covered child.
“This is a massacre,” shouted a distraught Nasser Dalu, 56, a cousin and neighbor, as he watched his relatives being pulled from debris. “What did these children do?”
Israel Defense Forces said it has launched more than 1,000 airstrikes over the last five days, mostly targeting weapons caches and military compounds, in an attempt to put an end to rocket and mortar attacks on communities in southern Israel.
It expanded its targets to include the homes of Hamas leaders; Gaza officials said 17 homes were attacked on Sunday alone. About the same time that the Dalu house was hit, Israel said it targeted Yiyhe Abia, the head of Hamas’ rocket-firing squad, in his home nearby.
Sunday’s airstrikes brought the death toll in Gaza to 69 people since Wednesday, including at least 24 civilians, hospital officials said. More than 660 Palestinians have been wounded.
Three Israelis were killed when a projectile fired from Gaza hit their apartment complex on Thursday.
The strike on the Dalu home inflamed much of Arab world and within hours “aldalumassacre” had become a Twitter hashtag. Some compared the attack to the 2009 shelling of the Samouni house, when 21 members of the family were killed during the previous Israeli assault on Gaza.
The Dalu strike came at a delicate time in the Gaza conflict, as Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has been trying to broker a long-term truce between Israel and Hamas. Despite the heated rhetoric and escalating violence, talks continued behind the scenes Sunday night, Hamas officials said.
Without an agreement soon, many fear Israel will launch a ground invasion. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday that Israel is “prepared for a significant expansion of the operation.”
At a news conference in Bangkok, Thailand, Obama urged both sides to resolve their differences “without further escalation of violence in the region.”
While repeating his previous statements that Israel has a right to press for an end to attacks on its people, Obama said, “If that can be accomplished without a ramping-up of military activity in Gaza, that’s preferable. That’s not just preferable for the people of Gaza, it’s also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they’re much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded.”
British Foreign Secretary William Hague shared Obama’s concerns, telling Sky News television that “a ground invasion of Gaza would lose Israel a lot of the international support and sympathy that they have in this situation.”
In addition to hitting the homes of Hamas officials, Israel expanded its targets to include buildings used by communications services, leaving several journalists injured early Sunday.
A 1:30 a.m. strike against one building destroyed the 11-floor offices of Al Quds television, a Hamas-affiliated network. Several journalists were seriously wounded, including one whose leg had to be amputated, witnesses said.
Cameraman Mohamed Akhras, 23, said he was working the night shift in case of any breaking stories and had just fallen asleep when the blast buried him and a colleague under furniture and debris.
“Israel targeted us because we are revealing the truth about their crimes,” Akhras said, half his face dotted with small shrapnel cuts.
Israeli military officials defended the attacks against the Al Quds site and another Hamas-run communications facility, saying they were trying to destroy rooftop antennas used by militants to communicate.