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Death toll in Gaza ups to121, as Israel gets ready for ground offensive
13-07-2014

TEL AVIV: Israel rushed an eighth missile interceptor battery into service on Saturday to counter stronger-than-expected rocket fire from Gaza as the military pounded positions in the Palestinian enclave for a fifth day, killing 15 people, medics said.

The Jewish state kept options open for a possible ground offensive into densely populated Gaza despite international pressure to negotiate a ceasefire in the conflict, which has killed 121 in the Islamist-ruled enclave since Tuesday.

Residents said a mosque in the central Gaza Strip was bombed to rubble. The Israeli military said the mosque had housed a weapons cache. Referring to Israel's prime minister, graffiti scrawled on one of the mosque's blasted walls read, "We will prevail despite your arrogance, Netanyahu."

Eight other mosques have been damaged from bombing and 537 Gaza houses have either been destroyed or damaged, according to the Gaza-based Al-Mezan Association for Human Rights.

By Saturday, no Israeli had been killed by rockets salvoes out of Gaza, thanks in part to Iron Dome, a partly US-funded interceptor system that operators said had exceeded expectations in shooting down missiles.

But racing for shelter from rockets has become a daily routine for hundreds of thousands of Israelis, and some 20,000 reservists have already been mobilized for a possible thrust into Gaza, the army said.

“We have upgraded the (Iron Dome) system recently from a number of aspects ... We try always to be one step ahead of the enemy ... and we see that its capabilities exceed our expectations,” a Defence Ministry official said on Israel Radio.

“In the past week we have carried out a very complex technological exercise to deliver the eighth system ...We brought together all the components from the production line and within days we made it operational,” he added, saying that a ninth battery could be made ready within days.

Israel said it was determined to end cross-border rocket attacks that intensified last month after its forces arrested hundreds of activists from the Islamist Hamas movement in the West Bank after the abduction there of three Jewish teenagers who were later found killed. A Palestinian youth was then killed in Jerusalem in a suspected revenge attack by Israelis.

Asked if Israel might move from the mostly aerial attacks of the past four days into a ground war in Gaza to stifle the rocket salvoes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We are weighing all possibilities and preparing for all possibilities.”

“No international pressure will prevent us from acting with all power,” he told reporters in Tel Aviv on Friday, a day after a phone call with US President Barack Obama about the worst flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian violence in almost two years.

Casualties on both sides would probably increase significantly if Israel's formidable mechanized forces stormed into the largely urbanized enclave that runs 40 km (25 miles) down the Mediterranean coast.

Gaza medical officials said at least 81 civilians, including 25 children, were among the 121 dead so far from aerial strikes on the sliver-like territory into which nearly 2 million people are packed, many in dilapidated, flimsy dwellings.

Three militants and 12 other people, including two disabled women at a rehabilitation center and a 65-year-old man, were killed by air strikes early on Saturday, doctors there said.

One of the dead in an air strike that killed six people in a Gaza street was identified as the nephew of Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas political leader in the territory.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said she was checking on why the rehabilitation center in an eastern district of Gaza City was hit by an Israeli tank shell. Four others including two children were wounded and in serious condition, medics said.

Washington affirmed Israel's right to defend itself in a statement from the Pentagon on Friday. But Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel told Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon he was concerned "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", a Pentagon statement said.