Palestinian death toll rises to 74 as Israel hits Gaza over rocket fire

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Cross Border Violence Enters Third Day

BY NIDAL AL-MUGHRABI AND JEFFREY HELLER

(Reuters) - At least 74 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in Israel's Gaza offensive, Palestinian officials said on Thursday, and militants kept up rocket attacks on Tel Aviv and other cities in warfare showing no signs of ending soon.

Eight Palestinian family members, including five children, were killed in an early morning air strike that destroyed at least two homes in Khan Younis in southern Gaza, the Palestinian Health ministry said.

Israel's military made no comment on what would be the deadliest strike since the offensive began on Tuesday.

"We have long days of fighting ahead of us," Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said on Thursday on Twitter of the offensive which began after a build-up of violence following the killing of three Jewish students last month and the murder of a Palestinian teen in a suspected revenge attack.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who will brief the Security Council on the crisis later on Thursday, condemned the rocket attacks and urged Israel to show restraint. "Gaza is on a knife edge," he told reporters.

Medical officials in Hamas-dominated Gaza said at least 60 civilians, including a four-year-old girl and boy, aged 5 who were killed on Thursday, were among the 74 Palestinians who have died in Israeli attacks since Tuesday.

Israel says it has struck more than 750 targets in an offensive intended to halt persistent rocket fire at its own civilian population, which escalated after Israeli forces arrested hundreds of Hamas activists in the occupied West Bank following the abduction of the Jewish teenagers.

It accuses Hamas Islamists of deliberately putting innocent Palestinians in harm's way by placing weaponry and gunmen in residential areas.

Across the Gaza Strip, plumes of smoke and rubble marked the aftermath of Israeli attacks in the most serious outbreak of hostilities between Palestinian militants and Israel's powerful armed forces in two years.

"The Jews say they are fighting Hamas and fighting gunmen while all the bodies we have seen on television are those of women and children," said Khaled Ali, 45, a Gaza taxi driver.

Rocket barrages on Israel - the military said there have been 365 since Tuesday - have caused no fatalities or serious injuries, due in part to interceptions by Israel's partly U.S.-funded Iron Dome aerial defence system.

But the wailing of air raid sirens has paralysed business in southern communities and sent hundreds of thousands of people scrambling for shelter in Tel Aviv, the commercial capital where two rockets were shot down on Thursday, but offices and shops remain open and roads are clogged with traffic.

Cities close to the northern Haifa port and the holy city of Jerusalem have also been targeted.

"KNOCK ON THE DOOR"

Israel's targets in the Gaza Strip have included militant commanders' homes, which it described as command and control centres. Palestinian officials put the number of dwellings either destroyed or damaged at more than 120. Local residents said some of the houses did not belong to fighters.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in a statement on Wednesday, said Hamas was committing "a double war crime".

"It targets Israeli civilians, while hiding behind Palestinian civilians," he said.

Owners of some of the targeted homes received telephoned warnings from Israel to get out, or so-called "knock-on-the-door" missiles, which do not carry explosive warheads, were first fired as a signal to evacuate.

Scenes of families fleeing their homes have been playing out daily.

Israeli leaders, who have popular support for the Gaza offensive, have also warned the air offensive could be expanded into a ground invasion of one of the world's most densely populated territories.

Some 20,000 reservists have been mobilised, the military says.

Palestinian militants intensified their cross-border rocket fire toward Israel in mid-June, after Israeli forces had arrested hundreds of Hamas activists in the West Bank in tandem with a search for the three missing high school students.

The violence spiralled as Israel mounted air strikes and militants shot more rockets across the border.

Egypt brokered a truce in the 2012 war but such a role could prove difficult now.

Accusing Hamas of aiding militants in Egypt's Sinai peninsula - an allegation it denies- the military-backed government in Cairo has destroyed smuggling tunnels through which cash, weaponry and consumer goods flowed to Gaza, which has been under tight Israeli and Egyptian border restrictions.

While backing Israel's right to self-defence, Washington on Wednesday called on both sides to de-escalate.

U.S.-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the West Bank, has denounced the offensive.

"This war is not against Hamas or any faction but is against the Palestinian people," Abbas, who entered a power-sharing deal with Hamas in April after years of feuding, said on Wednesday.

14 PHOTOS
Gaza Strip strikes
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Palestinian death toll rises to 74 as Israel hits Gaza over rocket fire
Damage caused by a rocket fired from Gaza strip hitting the city of Ashdod, Israel is seen on June 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO / DAVID BUIMOVITCH (Photo credit should read DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli artillery strikes a Palestinian Hamas police building during an airstrike in Gaza City on July 8, 2014. Israeli strikes on Gaza killed at least 17 people and wounded more than 100, emergency services said, as the military began an aerial campaign against militants in the Strip. AFP PHOTO / THOMAS COEX (Photo credit should read THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
Damage caused by a rocket fired from Gaza strip hitting the city of Ashdod, Israel is seen on June 8, 2014. AFP PHOTO / DAVID BUIMOVITCH (Photo credit should read DAVID BUIMOVITCH/AFP/Getty Images)
GAZA CITY, GAZA - JULY 8: Six more Palestinians have been killed in fresh Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, bringing the death toll to 17 since Israeli launched its offensive against the Palestinian enclave on Tuesday,July 8,2014. (Photo by Ramadan El-Agha/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Israeli Merkava tanks roll along the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip following an Israeli air strike in the Palestinian coastal enclave, on July 8, 2014. Israeli strikes on Gaza today killed at least 17 people and wounded more than 100, the emergency services said, as the military began an aerial campaign against militants in the Strip. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Israeli Merkava tanks roll along the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip following an Israeli air strike in the Palestinian coastal enclave, on July 8, 2014. Israeli strikes on Gaza today killed at least 17 people and wounded more than 100, the emergency services said, as the military began an aerial campaign against militants in the Strip. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
An Israeli Merkava tank rolls along the southern Israeli border with the Gaza Strip following an Israeli air strike in the Palestinian coastal enclave, on July 8, 2014. Israeli strikes on Gaza today killed at least 17 people and wounded more than 100, the emergency services said, as the military began an aerial campaign against militants in the Strip. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A ball of fire is seen following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 8, 2014. Israeli warplanes killed at least 13 Palestinians in Gaza, with Israel weighing 'all options' in a new drive to stamp out Hamas rocket fire as the two sides slid toward another major conflict. AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)
A picture taken in the southern Israeli border with Gaza shows smoke billowing after a mortar attack launched from the Gaza Strip set a bush on fire, on July 8, 2014. Israeli warplanes killed at least 15 Palestinians in Gaza today, as well as another four militants who tried to infiltrate Israel by sea at the start of a major operation against rocketfire. AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
A ball of fire is seen following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Israeli strikes on Gaza killed at least 17 people and wounded more than 100, emergency services said, as the military began an aerial campaign against militants in the Strip. AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)
A ball of fire is seen following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Israeli strikes on Gaza killed at least 17 people and wounded more than 100, emergency services said, as the military began an aerial campaign against militants in the Strip. AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)
A ball of fire is seen following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Israeli strikes on Gaza killed at least 17 people and wounded more than 100, emergency services said, as the military began an aerial campaign against militants in the Strip. AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)
A ball of fire is seen following an Israeli air strike in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Israeli strikes on Gaza killed at least 17 people and wounded more than 100, emergency services said, as the military began an aerial campaign against militants in the Strip. AFP PHOTO / SAID KHATIB (Photo credit should read SAID KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images)
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