GAZA CITY, Dec 27: Israeli warplanes and helicopters pounded the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on Saturday, killing at least 225 people and injuring 700 in the bloodiest one-day death toll in 60 years of conflict with the Palestinians.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said on Saturday Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip could “take time”.
“It may take time, and each and every one of us must be patient so we can complete the mission,” Olmert told reporters.
US President George Bush blamed Hamas for the Israeli action, urging it to cease rocket attacks at the Jewish state.
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal called for a new uprising against Israel after the air strikes.
“I call upon you (Palestinians) to carry out a third intifada,” Meshaal, who lives in exile in Damascus, told Al-Jazeera television in an interview.
He called for a military intifada against the Zionist enemy, as well as a peaceful intifada internally, an apparent reference to Hamas’s power struggle with western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose government is based in the Israeli occupied West Bank.
Some 60 aircraft struck about 50 targets in Gaza over the span of just a few minutes, drawing a swift response from Hamas which fired at least 50 rockets into the Jewish state, killing one Israeli.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the violence, as did the European Union, Russia, Britain and France.
The United States said Israel should avoid causing civilian casualties, while several Middle Eastern states and the Arab League, which is considering a Qatari call for an emergency summit, slammed Israel for the strikes.
Saudi Arabia urged its ally the United States on Saturday to intervene to end Israel’s attack on Gaza.
“Superpowers should take responsibility to stop these attacks,” the official Saudi Press Agency reported, citing a telephone conversation between Saudi King Abdallah and US President George W. Bush.
The Organisation of the Islamic Conference slammed as a war crime the Israel’s air raids.
“The latest Israeli massacre is a war crime and shows what little regard Israel has for international law and the 4th Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in time of war,” OIC chief Ekmeleddin Ihsanoglu said in a statement.
Both sides said they were ready to stage wider assaults, threatening to plunge the region into a crisis that could leave stalled talks over Palestinian statehood in tatters.
Black smoke billowed over Gaza City, where the dead and wounded lay scattered on the ground.
At the main Gaza City graduation ceremony, uniformed bodies lay in a pile and the wounded writhed in pain. Some rescue workers beat their heads and shouted “God is greatest”. One badly wounded man quietly recited verses from the holy Quran.
More than 700 Palestinians were wounded in all, medics said.
Hamas estimated that more than 100 members of its security forces had been killed, including police chief Tawfiq Jabber and the head of Hamas’s security and protection unit, along with at least 15 women and some children.
Morgues across the Gaza Strip ran out of space for bodies.
The Islamist group, which won a 2006 parliamentary election but was shunned by Western powers over its refusal to recognise Israel, said all of its security compounds in the Gaza Strip were destroyed or seriously damaged.
Aid groups said they feared the Israeli operation could fuel a humanitarian crisis in the impoverished coastal enclave, home to 1.5 million Palestinians, half of them dependent on food aid.
Gaza hospitals said they were running out of medical supplies because of the Israeli-led blockade, increasing the chances that the death toll will go up.
Israeli analyst Ron Ben-Yishai said the strike was “shock treatment ... aimed at securing a long-term ceasefire between Hamas and Israel on terms that are favourable to Israel”.
Among the buildings destroyed in the Israeli bombardment was Gaza’s presidential compound, which Hamas seized in June 2007 from Abbas’s secular Fatah forces after a brief civil war.
Witnesses also reported heavy Israeli bombing along Gaza’s border with Egypt.
Some of the Israeli missiles struck in densely populated areas as children were leaving school, and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children.
Said Masri sat in the middle of a Gaza City street, close to a security compound, alternately slapping his face and covering his head with dust from the bombed-out building.
“My son is gone, my son is gone,” wailed Masri, 57. The shopkeeper said he sent his 9-year-old son out to purchase cigarettes minutes before the air strikes began and now could not find him. “May I burn like the cigarettes, may Israel burn,” Masri moaned.
Israeli military officials said more than 100 tons of bombs were dropped on Gaza by mid-afternoon. They spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines.
Ambulances and private cars rushed the wounded and dead to Al-Shifa hospital, where the morgue was filled to capacity and bodies were piled on the blood-stained floors in the corridors as the wounded screamed in pain.
“My brother was still alive when he arrived here, and was talking to me but no one could help him. He died,” said Ahmed al-Gharabli, his voice shaking and tears streaming down his cheeks. His brother Baha was a policeman.
Israel told its civilians near Gaza to take cover as militants began retaliating with rockets, and in the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for restraint. Egypt summoned the Israeli ambassador to express condemnation and opened its border with Gaza to allow ambulances to drive out some of the wounded.
Protests against the Israeli blitz erupted in Arab Israeli villages, the Abbas-ruled West Bank and across the Arab world.
The most violent West Bank response came in the city of Al Khalil, where dozens of youths, many of them masked, hurled rocks for hours at Israeli forces, who lobbed tear gas and stun grenades in response.
Officials in Bethlehem, Jesus Christ’s traditional birthplace, turned off Christmas lights and traders shuttered shops to protest the Israeli attack.
In Amman, several hundred Jordanians protested outside a UN complex in the capital Amman.
“Hamas, go ahead. You are the cannon, we are the bullets,” they cried, some waving the signature green Hamas banners.
In Ein Hilweh, a Palestinian refugee camp in Lebanon, dozens of youths hit the streets and set fire to tires. In Syria’s al-Yarmouk camp, outside Damascus, dozens of Palestinian protesters vowed to continue fighting Israel.—Agencies