Two disabled women were killed and four others wounded after an Israeli airstrike blitzed a Gaza mosque that doubled as a rehabilitation center on Saturday, lifting the Palestinian death toll to 125 as Israel's military campaign against Hamas advances into its fifth day.
Israel said that Hamas was stashing weapons and rockets in the mosque, now a pile of rubble located in an eastern neighborhood of Gaza City. The center is among 1,100 targets struck in several weeks in an effort to curb the nearly 700 rockets that have already been fired at Israel by militants.
Yet neither side shows signs of abating retaliatory rocket attacks amid the heaviest fighting the region has seen in over two years. On Tuesday, the Israeli Defense Forces launched "Operation Protective Edge," to stop missile fire from Gaza, even as international pressure mounted to negotiate a ceasefire.
The escalating violence comes the week after three Israeli settler teens missing for 18 days were found murdered in the West Bank, after which a 16-year-old Palestinian boy was burned to death in Jerusalem in an apparent revenge killing.
On Saturday, a Hamas spokesman in Doha, Qatar, said that Israel had in fact destroyed two mosques, although the claim could not be immediately confirmed.
"The bombing of two mosques in Gaza overnight shows how barbaric this enemy is and how much it is hostile to Islam," Hamas spokesman, Husam Badran, told the Associated Press. "This terrorism gives us the right to broaden our response to deter this occupier."
But an IDF spokesman said militants are knowingly endangering Palestinians by concealing their weapons in religious and other civilian sites and hiding in densely populated residential areas.
"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.
In addition to the mosque attack, at least three militants and four other Palestinians, including a 65-year-old man, were also killed in airstrikes aimed at other Hamas targets on Saturday, medics in Gaza said.
Israel has suffered no fatalities, in part due to a joint US-Israeli accomplished rocket defense system called "The Iron Dome," which has intercepted 130 rockets in midair so far, including missiles launched at Tel Aviv's main international airport.
However, three Israelis were wounded when a rocket struck a gas station in southern Israel on Friday, while a soldier is still hospitalized after being hit by rocket shrapnel on Thursday, the IDF said.
On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that the military will persevere with its operation until "our goals are realized."
"The overriding goal is to restore the peace and quiet," he said.
On Wednesday, during a meeting of Palestinian leaders in Ramallah, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas — who brokered a power sharing deal with Hamas in April — accused Israel of committing "genocide" in Gaza.
"This is a war on the Palestinian people in every sense of the term… this is not against Hamas or a (militant) faction, it’s a war on the Palestinian people,” said Abbas. “Israel is not defending itself, it’s defending settlements."
Israel claims that dozens of Hamas members have been killed in the operation, yet it has not established how many of the over 125 killed and 920 wounded are militants and how many are civilians.
The United Nations and the US have affirmed Israel's right to self-defense but said that in doing so, Israel may be violating international law in its striking at least 500 civilian residences.
"We have received deeply disturbing reports that many of the civilian casualties, including of children, occurred as a result of strikes on homes," said Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel voiced his concerns to IDF Minister Moshe Ya'alon about the "risk of further escalation and emphasized the need for all sides to do everything they can to protect civilian lives and restore calm," according to a Pentagon statement released Friday.
Meanwhile, pro-Palestine demonstrations voicing opposition to Israel's operation in Gaza have been organized in various cities around the world, including in New York, where thousands of protestors marched outside the Israeli consulate and through the streets of Midtown on Wednesday.
The latest round of violence is reminiscent of an eight-day offensive in November 2012, also aimed at putting an end to militant rocket fire. A ceasefire was eventually brokered, but not before the deaths of 180 Palestinians and six Israelis.
Netanyahu remained vague when asked whether Israel would consider a ground offensive this time around, saying only, "We are weighing every possibility."
The last ground invasion of Gaza, in 2008-09, lasted three weeks, during which time 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed.
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