Israel stepped up its offensive operations in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, killing at least nine people in a broad series of airstrikes and shelling attacks, hitting back after Palestinian rockets rained on southern Israel throughout the day. Among the projectiles fired from Gaza was a long-range Grad rocket that landed
Responding, Palestinians accused Israel of poisoning the atmosphere ahead of President George W. Bush's visit to the region next week.
In airstrikes all over Gaza on Thursday, Israeli aircraft and tanks hit buildings the Israelis said were used by militants. In one clash, Israel shelled a house in the southern city of Khan Younis, killing a militant along with his mother, sister and brother. Israeli army spokeswoman Capt. Noa Meir said militants were ''intentionally using civilian areas'' to fire at troops and blamed them for the deaths.
In another incident, a 14-year-old boy was critically wounded.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the Israeli offensive. ''We consider what's going on in Gaza ... as a bloody Israeli message in which Israel shirks itself of any commitment before the arrival of President Bush to the region,'' he said. He did not mention the rocket firing.
No one was hurt in the Grad attack, but Israel considered the attack an escalation. For weeks Israel has been conducting pinpoint strikes at suspected Gaza militants involved in the rocket fire. On Thursday the army reverted to the tactic of hitting buildings, putting civilians in the line of fire.
''The Palestinians have attacked a major Israeli city ... and thus have upped the ante,'' said government spokesman David Baker. ''Israel will not allow any cities to be attacked by Palestinian rocket fire.''
In published comments Thursday, Bush said he would not let a future Palestinian state become a base for attacks on Israel.
''I won't lend a hand to the establishment of a terror state on the borders of Israel,'' Bush told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for the Grad attack. ''We are going to launch more strikes in the depth of the entity (Israel),'' they said in a joint statement. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a tiny group backed by Hamas, also claimed responsibility.
Ashkelon Mayor Roni Mehatzri called for an Israeli invasion of Gaza to stop the attacks, now that his city of 120,000 is suddenly in range. ''It's just madness, just madness,'' he told Channel 10 TV. ''Israel should have acted in Gaza a long time ago.''
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak says routinely that an Israeli invasion of Gaza is nearing, but previous large-scale ground operations have failed to halt the rocket fire while causing heavy casualties and damage and usually sparking an international outcry against Israel.
Yossi Peled, a retired army general, said putting Israeli cities in rocket range may require Israel to hit back hard, despite the inevitable criticism. ''The government of Israel will have to take some very tough decisions,'' Peled said. in the city of Ashkelon.