Violence a daily reality as world leaders push for Israel-Gaza cease-fire

Posted at 3:51 PM, Nov 18, 2012

(CNN) — Another day of loud booms and deadly weaponry plummeting from the sky wracked Israel and Gaza on Sunday, with fresh casualties reported on both sides of a conflict that international leaders scrambled to end.

Rescuers pulled the bloodied bodies of children from the wreckage of a Gaza home Sunday after an Israeli airstrike, which Israel said targeted a top Hamas militant. The Israelis initially said the operative was killed, but they later said he may have survived.

And about 120 rockets were fired from Gaza into Israel on Sunday, the Israel Defense Forces reported. At least 38 were intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” missile-defense system, the IDF said — but one struck a car in the Israeli town of Ofakim, injuring an unspecified number of people, while another hit a woman’s carport while she was inside her house in Ashkelon. Fresh sirens sounded Sunday in Tel Aviv, but the IDF said it had intercepted at least two rockets headed for the city.

It was the latest violence in what has become a daily nightmare for millions in the region, one that puts Gaza’s 1.7 million residents and millions of Israelis in harm’s way. But an Israeli special envoy was in Egypt for talks late Sunday, the Egyptian government said, and a stream of Arab League, U.N. and European diplomats were darting in and out of the region.

“War can be avoided. War must be avoided,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.

The two sides in the conflict showed no signs of slowing their attacks, however. In Gaza, Hamas-run al Aqsa television showed images of children’s bodies being carried away from a house blown apart by an Israeli strike.

They were among a family of 10 who died there, according to a Palestinian ambulance service. On Twitter, the al Qassam Brigades — Hamas’ military wing — called it a “massacre committed by Israeli occupation.”

Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, the IDF’s chief spokeswoman, said Yehya Bayaa — a “senior Hamas member” — was targeted in the strike. The IDF identified Bayaa as one of the leaders of the Hamas rocket-launching unit.

“When I say a senior Hamas member, I mean members that have Israeli blood on their hands — members of Hamas that planned either the abduction of soldiers or are very much involved in targeting Israelis,” she told CNN.

She said the house was Bayaa’s home and suspected command center and that the Israeli military was examining video of the strike to look for signs of secondary explosions — an indication that there were explosives inside.

But late Sunday, Leibovitch told CNN she did not know for sure whether Bayaa had been killed in the strike.

Israel also said Sunday that it was not to blame for the death of a Palestinian child last week — a 4-year-old boy whose lifeless body was kissed by Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil during his visit to a Gaza hospital Friday.

CNN visited the child’s home, which neighbors said had been bombed five hours previously. Neighbors and family members told CNN they heard an aircraft before the explosion.

But the Israeli military told CNN on Sunday it did not carry out any airstrikes at the time of the child’s death. The IDF said had stopped its attacks for Kandil’s visit, raising questions about what caused the fatal blast. One possibility could be the misfire of a Hamas rocket intended for Israel, since CNN’s crew in Gaza said it saw two such rockets passing overhead — apparently fired not far from where the boy lived.

Q&A: What is Hamas?

The IDF, which has been touting the “pinpoint” precision of its airstrikes via Twitter, said it had hit a slew of what it called “terrorist” sites while sparing other damage.

“Terrorists put an underground launch site next to a mosque. We targeted the site. The mosque was unharmed,” the IDF said in one post, which was accompanied by military video of the raid.

Israel launched its offensive on Wednesday in response to persistent rocket attacks from militants in Gaza. A spokesman for Gaza’s interior ministry said 69 Palestinians had been killed by Sunday evening, including 20 children and eight women. More than 660 people were injured, the ministry said.

In Israel, rocket attacks had killed at least three people and wounded 68, including some soldiers, the Israel Defense Forces said. Over the last five days, militants in Gaza fired more than 960 rockets at Israel — 340 of which were intercepted, according to the IDF.

The al Qassam Brigades warned on Twitter, “Al Qassam to Zionists: ‘Iron Dome would protect you no more.’ ” But Israel said nearly 100 rockets fired from Gaza in recent days have crashed back into the strip. “Hamas fires from civilian areas and hits its own people,” the IDF said on Twitter.

The Israeli government has called up 75,000 reservists and massed 30,000 troops across the border of the Palestinian territory, the IDF said. In Jerusalem, Netanyahu told reporters that Israel is prepared to significantly escalate its operation against Palestinian militants in Gaza.

“We are exacting a heavy price from Hamas and the (other) terrorist organizations, and IDF is prepared for a significant expansion of its operations,” Netanyahu said before his weekly Cabinet meeting.

Q&A: Gaza strikes could be beginning of ground attack

In Cairo, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy said discussions were under way about how to bring about a cease-fire. An Egyptian military official told CNN that the nation’s intelligence chief, Mohammed Shehata, was spearheading talks with Hamas and Israel, and Israel’s special envoy arrived in Egypt for talks with Shehata late Sunday, the Egyptian government said.

And on Egypt’s border with Gaza, about 500 Egyptian protesters crossed into the territory on Sunday in what their leader said was a show of solidarity with the Palestinians. They raised Palestinian flags and chanted, “We are the youth of January 25 revolution, Palestine will be free! Open the crossing, Israel is the enemy!”

“We have broken the siege,” said Rami Shaath, the group’s main organizer. “The Arab Spring has changed the region. We are happy to go in to support our Palestinian brothers, but it’s sad to hear the explosions of the Israeli bombing of Gaza all the way on the Egyptian side. We brought in small amounts medical supplies, food, and water, but our main message is political support to the Gazans.”

Hamas seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank, in 2007. But Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said Sunday that he is in “continuing contact” with exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and that the goal of the Israeli attacks was “to increase division between two parts of the homeland.”

In a televised address Sunday, Abbas said the proper response should be “to end the Palestinian divisions and to restore our unification,” and called on Arab League leaders to hold a summit meeting “as soon as possible.”

An Arab League spokesman said Secretary-General Nabil el-Araby and 16 league foreign ministers will drive into Gaza on Tuesday for talks. And Saeb Erakat, a member of the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and an Abbas ally, said the Palestinian leader would hold talks with Tony Blair, the envoy for the Mideast Quartet, and with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the coming days.

Erakat told CNN that Netanyahu should learn “a lesson” that “there will be never be a security without peace.” The Israeli leader is “waging a campaign of attacks and bombardment and military attacks against Gaza,” and may launch a land invasion, Erakat said.

“He wants to kill 1,000, 1,500, 2,000 Palestinians. Where would this put us?” Erakat asked. He added, “We have one aim now: to ensure we stop the attacks against Gaza, to ensure to sustain the calm, mutual comprehensive calm. That’s all what we want.”

The United States and several European countries have put the brunt of the blame for the current crisis on Hamas, saying Israel has a right to protect itself. Arab and Muslim nations, meanwhile, have accused Israel of being the aggressor.

Rocket attacks into Israel were the “precipitating event” for the fighting under way now, U.S. President Barack Obama said during a stop in Thailand on Sunday. “We are actively working with all the parties in the region to see if we can end those missiles being fired without further escalation of violence in the region.”

Obama said he has spoken with Netanyahu, Morsy, and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan. He emphasized that “those who champion the cause of the Palestinians should recognize that if we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, then the likelihood” of peace talks resuming that could lead to a two-state solution “is going to be pushed off way into the future,” Obama said.

Six Palestinian journalists were injured when Israeli warplanes targeted two buildings that housed Palestinian and Hamas news organizations as well as a handful of international news outlets, according to Palestinian government and media reports. The IDF released a video along with a message saying it showed the “surgical” targeting of Hamas communication operations on the roof of a media building in Gaza, and that only the antenna atop the building was struck.

“If Hamas commanders in Gaza can communicate with each other, then they can attack us,” the IDF said in one of its several Twitter posts on the issue. “This is the capability that we targeted … We did not target any other floors.” The IDF also urged reporters to “stay away from Hamas positions and operatives.”

But Nour Odeh, a Palestinian government spokeswoman in the West Bank, said the attack on the two buildings “is an assault on the freedom of the press and an attempt to prohibit journalists from conveying to the outside world what is exactly happening in the Gaza strip and the extent to which Israel is violating international law and international humanitarian law in this besieged part of the occupied Palestinian territory.”

CNN’s Sara Sidner reported from Gaza City; CNN’s Fred Pleitgen reported from southern Israel; and CNN’s Josh Levs from Atlanta. CNN’s Chelsea J. Carter, Kindah Shair, Amir Ahmed, Jessica Yellin, Ben Wedeman and Mohamed Fadel Fahmy contributed to this report.

™ & © 2012 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.