Israeli leaders plot response as Gaza violence rages

Smoke billowed from buildings in Gaza City on Thursday following an Israeli air strike, one of hundreds by Israel.
Smoke billowed from buildings in Gaza City on Thursday following an Israeli air strike, one of hundreds by Israel.

JERUSALEM — Israel’s prime minister convened his security Cabinet late Thursday to plot a response to a new burst of violence with Gaza militants, ordering the army to take unspecified ‘‘strong action’’ as the military reinforced units along the border ahead of a possible escalation.

Fighting showed few signs of slowing. Late Thursday, the Israeli military flattened a well-known cultural center in a crowded Gaza City neighborhood, claiming it was a Hamas military base, as militants fired rockets toward Israel throughout the evening.

In all, Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes during the day, killing at least three Palestinians, including a pregnant woman and her 1-year-old daughter, as Palestinian militants fired scores of rockets into Israel, wounding seven people.


The flare-up came as Egypt continued efforts to broker a long-term cease-fire.

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Israel’s Channel 10 TV said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed the meeting of his security Cabinet by two hours to allow the Egyptians to press forward with their work.

After a four-hour meeting, the Cabinet issued a short statement, saying it had directed the army ‘‘to continue taking strong action against the terrorist elements.’’ It did not elaborate. But shortly before the meeting, Netanyahu and his defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, met with top military officials to discuss their options.

An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing closed consultations, said Netanyahu instructed the army to prepare for ‘‘every possibility.’’

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israel had ‘‘ground troops that are ready to deploy. We are reinforcing the southern command and Gaza division.’’ He wouldn’t comment on Israeli media reports of troops preparing for a possible ground operation.


Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Despite the animosity, the enemies have signaled, through their contacts with Egypt, that they want to avoid another war.

Hamas is demanding the lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade that has devastated Gaza’s economy, while Israel wants an end to rocket fire, as well as recent border protests and launches of incendiary balloons, and the return of the remains of two dead soldiers and two Israelis believed to be alive and held by Hamas.

Thursday’s fighting, however, brought back memories of the most recent war, in 2014. Air raid sirens wailed in southern Israel overnight and throughout the day, sending families scrambling into bomb shelters, canceling outdoor summer cultural events, and forcing summer camps indoors. The Israeli air force, meanwhile, pounded targets across Gaza.

A Palestinian rocket struck the southern city of Beersheba late in the afternoon, landing in an open area. It was the first time a rocket had hit the city since the 2014 war.

Shortly after, an Israeli airstrike flattened the five-story cultural center in the Shati refugee camp. The attack set off a powerful explosion and generated a huge plume of black smoke, causing crowds to scream in panic. Medical officials said at least seven bystanders were wounded.


The building is home to a popular theater and exhibits plays and other shows. An Egyptian-Palestinian cultural society also has an office in the building.

‘‘The deliberate targeting of a cultural center with airstrikes and destruction . . . is a barbaric act,’’ said Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman. He said the destruction of the Egyptian cultural office was ‘‘an Israeli attempt to sabotage’’ the Egyptian cease-fire efforts.

The Israeli military said the building served as a Palestinian military installation. The military said it struck some 200 targets in Gaza, including Hamas command posts and weapons facilities. It said a similar number of rockets and mortars were fired at Israel.