JERUSALEM — Israel massed troops outside the Gaza Strip late Thursday, signaling that it was prepared to send in ground forces to engage Hamas militants who bombarded the Jewish state with more than 200 missiles and killed at least three people.
The escalating violence between archenemies Israel and Hamas, which launched scores of rockets into southern Israel in retaliation for a Wednesday airstrike that killed the Palestinian group’s military chief, has sparked concern of all-out warfare in a Middle East already roiled by Syria’s civil war and protests in the wake of the Arab Spring.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear he was ready to expand the offensive.
“No government would tolerate a situation where nearly a fifth of its people live under a constant barrage of rockets and missile fire, and Israel will not tolerate this situation,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “This is why my government has instructed the Israeli Defense Forces to conduct surgical strikes against the terrorist infrastructure in Gaza.
“And this is why Israel will continue to take whatever action is necessary to defend our people,” he said.
Several Israeli tanks, armored vehicles and buses carrying soldiers moved toward the border late Thursday after a call-up of reservists for possible action in Gaza. Military officials said as many as 30,000 soldiers could be drafted in the call-up action.
“The question [of all-out warfare] comes down to whether Hamas will give in or not,” said Daniel Byman, deputy director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “If it continues rocket attacks, it will be hard for Israel to cease its attacks, so this could escalate.”
“What a martyrdom and what a glorious day,” Mr. Haniyeh said. “Congratulations. Rest in peace. Feel blessed.”
He said Palestinians remained steadfast and defiant during the 22 days of the last Israel-Gaza war in 2008 and 2009 and could hold out even longer. More than 1,400 Palestinians were killed in that war.
The heaviest fighting in four years also has killed 16 Palestinians in two days and brought life to a standstill on both sides of the border. School has been canceled, and many civilians were huddling indoors.
In Tel Aviv, air-raid sirens and a rocket explosion were heard Thursday night for the first time since fighting with Gaza militants began Wednesday. Israeli officials said the rocket exploded in an open area in Bat Yam, a town four miles to the south, without causing casualties or damage.
Israeli aircraft were reported to have attacked 320 Gaza Strip targets, including weapons arsenals, workshops, command posts, tunnels and rocket-launching sites.
Tanks firing from inside Israel and gunboats off Gaza’s coast also participated in the attacks.