Israeli air strikes flattened a seven-floor office building and severely damaged a shopping centre in the Gaza Strip, signalling a new escalation in seven weeks of fighting with Hamas.
Yesterday’s strikes in the southern town of Rafah came hours after Israel bombed an apartment block in Gaza City, causing the 12-storey building to collapse.
The targeting of large buildings appears to be part of a new military tactic by Israel. Over the weekend, the army began warning Gaza residents in automated phone calls that it would target buildings harbouring “terrorist infrastructure” and that they should stay away.
Speaking ahead of a cabinet meeting, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Gaza residents to keep their distance from Hamas militants.
“I call on the people of Gaza to immediately evacuate any structure that Hamas is using to commit acts of terror,” he said. “Every one of these structures is a target for us.”
A senior military official confirmed that Israel has a policy of striking at buildings containing Hamas operational centres or those from which military activities are launched. The official said each strike required prior approval from military lawyers and is carried out only after the local population is warned.
However, he said, there was now a widening of locations that the military can target.
Meanwhile, Gaza militants continued to fire rockets and mortar shells at Israel, including at least 10 yesterday, the military said. Elsewhere, five rockets were fired from Syria and fell in open areas in northern Israel.
Amid persistent violence, Egypt has urged Israel and the Palestinians to resume indirect talks in Cairo on a durable ceasefire, but stopped short of issuing invitations.
Several rounds of indirect talks between Israel and Hamas have collapsed, along with temporary ceasefires that accompanied them. The gap between Israel and the Islamic militant group on a new border deal for blockaded Gaza remains vast.
The Israeli military said it had carried out some 20 strikes on Gaza since midnight on Saturday.
In Rafah, Israeli aircraft bombed the seven-storey Zourab building, which houses an office of the Hamas-run interior ministry. Witnesses said the building was levelled and that the strikes caused severe damage to nearby shops, homes and cars.
Another strike hit a nearby shopping centre, sparking a fire that gutted the two-storey building.
The military said the two buildings were attacked because they housed facilities linked to militants. The Gaza City apartment block toppled on Saturday was targeted because a Hamas command centre operated from there, the army said.
A Palestinian health official said two people were killed in a pair of air strikes near a coastal road on Sunday, including one on a group of people coming out of a mosque after morning prayers. Two more fatalities were registered when a motorcycle following a car evacuating the wounded from the strikes was hit.
The UN estimates that more than 17,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged beyond repair since the war began on July 8.
More than 2,100 Palestinians, including close to 500 children, have been killed, according to Palestinian health officials and UN figures. Israel has lost 64 soldiers and four civilians.