By Jane Flanagan and Jonathan Petre
Last updated at 3:06 AM on 28th December 2008
More than 200 Palestinians were killed and 400 wounded as Israeli warplanes destroyed dozens of security compounds in massive air strikes across the Gaza Strip today in retaliation for continuing rocket fire on Israeli border towns from militants in the enclave.
As world leaders urged restraint, Israel said the most intense assaults on Gaza for decades were just ‘the beginning’ and the operation would ‘last as long as necessary’.
Defence minister Ehud Barak said: ‘It won’t be easy and it won’t be short. There is a time for calm and a time for fighting and now the time has come to fight.’
Israel declared a state of emergency in its communities in a 12-mile range of Gaza, putting the area on a war footing. But it was not clear whether it was preparing to send ground forces back into the Gaza Strip, which it left in 2005.
Since a fragile six-month truce ended on December 19, more than 200 rockets and mortar shells have been fired at Israel, causing damage and and some injuries.
Immediately after yesterday’s airstrikes Hamas, the Islamist faction that rules the Palestinian territory, vowed revenge, and several medium-range missiles were fired into Israel, killing one man and injuring four others.
A spokesman said it would continue resisting ‘until the last drop of blood’.
In Gaza, black clouds of smoke rose high into the air as missiles fired by scores of Israeli F-16 bombers struck more than 50 security installations and bases throughout the Strip, burying many people under rubble.
The air strikes caused widespread panic and confusion, as black clouds of smoke rose above the territory.
Some of the missiles struck in densely populated areas as children were leaving school and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children.
Mothers tried desperately to reach their children through the smoke that filled the streets, along with the sound of ambulance sirens and the cries of grieving relatives.
Shopkeeper Said Masri, 57, who sent out his nine-year-old son to buy cigarettes minutes before the air strikes began, 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,’ he wailed.
‘May I burn like the cigarettes, may Israel burn.’
Medical staff struggled to cope with the wounded and dying flooding into hospitals in cars, vans and ambulances.
At Shifa Hospital, Gaza’s main medical amenity, beds ran out within minutes and bleeding bodies were lined up on the floors of the corridors as medics fought to help the most severe cases.
Corpses rolled up in blankets filled hospital floors, awaiting identification.
‘We are treating people on the floor, in the corridors. We have no more space. We don’t know who is here or who to treat first,’ said one doctor.
The Gaza Strip has been effectively sealed off from the rest of the world for many months, leaving stocks of surgical equipment, drugs and other essentials very low.
Among those who bore the brunt of the ferocious attack were 40 Palestinian cadets who had gathered for their passing-out parade at the police headquarters in Gaza City.
A Hamas general, who was due to take their salute, was among the pile of bodies after a massive explosion – possibly from a laser-guided bomb – tore through the parade ground where families were about to watch the ceremony.
Several of those who rushed to help the dead and injured beat their heads and shouted: ‘Allahu akbar’ [‘God is great’].
The Israeli military authorities said they had targeted ‘Hamas terror operatives’ as well as training camps and weapons storage warehouses. Defending the raids, Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said it had ‘no choice’ but to defend its citizens.
Last week Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert warned on Arab TV that he did not want war but ‘Hamas must be stopped. I will not hesitate to use Israel’s might to strike Hamas and Islamic jihad [holy war]’.
International reaction to yesterday’s attacks was swift. Gordon Brown, the Vatican, the UN and special Middle East envoy Tony Blair all called for an immediate restoration of calm.
Mr Brown said he was ‘deeply concerned by continuing missile strikes from Gaza on Israel and by Israel’s response today.’
He urged Gazan militants to cease all rocket attacks on Israel immediately and Israel to do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties.
The EU condemned the ‘disproportionate’ use of force and called for an immediate halt to air strikes and Palestinian attacks in and around Gaza. And the US urged Israel to avoid civilian casualties and called on Hamas to cease its missile attacks.
Egypt summoned the Israeli ambassador in Cairo to express its condemnation of the strikes, saying it held Israel responsible for the dead and injured and calling for new efforts to restore the truce with Hamas, and the Arab League is to hold an emergency meeting today.