IAF STRIKE ON HAMAS WEAPONS ARSENAL:
The Iron Dome anti-rocket system had intercepted some 50 rockets by Thursday afternoon over major population centers including Ashdod and Beersheba. Some Grad rockets did explode in these cities, causing damage but no loss of life. A factory sustained a direct hit in Ashdod, but there were no casualties. Radio reports said a steady stream of Israelis from southern towns was moving north to escape the constant rockets, although there were no confirmed numbers.
In Gaza, 13 Palestinians — including seven terrorists and four civilians — have been killed by Israeli actions since Wednesday. Among the dead terrorists was Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari and another senior military wing commander, as well as a three-man rocket launching squad. Among the civilian dead were a seven-year-old girl and a pregnant woman, Palestinian medical sources told the BBC.
Jabari was buried in Gaza City Thursday morning, accompanied by tens of thousands of Gazans. However, senior Hamas officials and military wing commanders did not attend the funeral procession, the BBC reported.
As a sign of the conflict's wider repercussions, Egypt's President Mohammed Morsi called an emergency meeting of his cabinet, including his defense minister, and instructed authorities to open the Rafah border between Egypt and the Gaza Strip.
Coming under increasing domestic and Arab pressure, Egypt's Foreign Ministry on Thursday called on the U.S. to "immediately intervene" to end "Israeli aggression" on Gaza. Egypt recalled its ambassador from Tel Aviv on Wednesday. The Muslim Brotherhood has called for protests to demand that the Egyptian government cut its ties with Israel.
Morsi addressed the Egyptian people on Thursday, saying that Egypt "stands by the Palestinian people to end the Israeli aggression on Gaza," according to Reuters.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu said he had spoken with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal, Gazan authorities and Egypt over the Israeli offensive.
"Israel's occupation policies of establishing settlements and its aggressive position make the situation in the region more critical," Davutoglu said, adding that Turkey would act in the U.N. to end the Israeli offensive.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak have approved a series of steps presented them by IDF Chief of General Staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz, including a limited call up of reservists in special air defense and homefront command units. As of Thursday afternoon, the IDF's operational footing was largely air-based, although an undetermined number of emergency reserve call-up orders were issued for several units, including air defense, artillery, and Special Operations forces. The move is also seen as a warning message to the Palestinian terror groups.
In addition, the IDF has started sending infantry, tanks and other armored vehicles toward the Gaza border. As of press time, there was no decision to issue wide emergency call-ups for reservists, which would signal that the IDF was headed into a ground operation in Gaza. However, the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee was to meet in an emergency session later Thursday to discuss approving issuing emergency call-ups for a larger group of IDF reservists.
Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser told reporters after Wednesday's Security Cabinet meeting that the ministers had authorized the IDF to act, under the auspices of the defense minister, to call up reservists and for the Homefront Command to operate on an emergency footing.
In Hebrew, Israel is calling its operation "Pillar of Cloud" (Exodus 13:21). Hamas is calling its operation against Israel "Stones of Shale" (Qur'an 105:4).
IDF Spokesman Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai said the current round of fighting would last at least several more days, and Israel expected Hamas to intensify its rocket attacks once it had recovered from the initial shock at Jabari's death. Mordechai said the goals of "Pillar of Defense" were to return quiet to the residents of Israel's south and to deal a severe blow to Hamas terrorists in a surgical fashion.
"I estimate that the challenge will become harder in coming days and that our homefront will come under increased rocket attack," Mordechai said in a briefing.
The IAF knocked out several dozen Fajr-5 missiles and launching sites immediately after killing Jabari on Wednesday afternoon, Mordechai said. The longer-range, Iranian-made Fajr rockets have a range of 70 kilometers (46 miles) and could have been fired at the central Dan region, including Tel Aviv. Hamas' military wing said that it fired a Fajr rocket at Israel's central region, a claim rejected by the IDF. The IDF said it had hit all of the Fajr rocket sites it was aware of.
While the Israeli rhetoric is that "Israel does not seek war," Defense Minister Ehud Barak declared an emergency situation in the communities within a 40km radius of the Gaza Strip as preparation for the coming days' fighting. Schools within this range were closed Thursday, as were Sapir College in Sderot and Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba.
Police raised the countrywide alert to emergency footing with all educational facilities receiving extra protection.
While touring the Southern Command on Thursday, Barak said that "hits on Hamas will be systematic, harsh, and will get more intensive. This could be long battle."
"Jabari was eliminated, the Fajr network, which can reach central Israel, has been almost completely paralyzed," Barak said. "Our assessment is that their launching capabilities have been intensely degraded and this is just the beginning."
Internal Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told Army Radio on Thursday that it was too soon to end the offensive in Gaza, and that Israel "needs to wipe out the leadership of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorist organizations." A close Netanyahu associate, MK Tzahi Hanegbi, told Army Radio that the government of Israel had internalized the fact that the strategic situation with regards to Gaza had deteriorated, and that it would, perhaps after the January 2013 January elections, act to change the situation in Gaza with an "Operation Defensive Shield 2." Hanegbi was referring to the IDF's months-long operation in Palestinian towns in the West Bank during the Second Intifada in which troops surrounded cities and carried out round the clock anti-terror operations. A senior diplomatic source told Israel Hayom that there was already a series of successful operations in the latest offensive, including the assassination of Jabari, the destruction of Fajr rockets, as well as "the thwarting of Hamas' attempt to hit Israel's central region." The source added that the IDF has been ordered to prepare for a ground incursion into Gaza.
Netanyahu on Thursday conducted consultations at IDF headquarters in the Kirya military complex in Tel Aviv, after speaking on the phone with U.S. President Barack Obama and U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon on Wednesday night
Israel's U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor called on the international community to condemn "indiscriminate rocket fire against Israeli citizens - children, women." He was referring to five days of escalating Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza. Speaking to reporters, Prosor described Jabari as a "mass murderer" who had been planning fresh attacks against Israeli citizens.