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Israel escalates aerial offensive on Gaza

Palestinians inspect the rubble of a house after it was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Thursday, July 10, 2014. Israel dramatically escalated its aerial assault in Gaza Thursday hitting hundreds of Hamas targets as its missile defense system once again intercepted rockets aimed at the country’s heartland. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa) -
Palestinians inspect the rubble of a house after it was hit by an Israeli missile strike in Gaza City, Thursday, July 10, 2014. Israel dramatically escalated its aerial assault in Gaza Thursday hitting hundreds of Hamas targets as its missile defense system once again intercepted rockets aimed at the country’s heartland. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
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By Aron Heller And Najib Jobain, The Associated Press

JERUSALEM - Israel dramatically escalated its aerial assault targeting hundreds of Hamas sites in the Gaza Strip Thursday as Palestinians reported the strikes also hit a home and a beachside cafe, raising the total number of people killed in this week's offensive to at least 85. Israel's missile defence system also once again intercepted rockets fired by militants at the country's heartland.

Military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said Israel struck more than 320 Hamas targets overnight, focusing on underground tunnel networks and rocket launching sites. In all, the military has struck 750 sites since the offensive began on Tuesday.

Israel has mobilized 20,000 reservists for a possible ground operation into Gaza, but for the time remains focused on maximizing its air campaign, Lerner said. A ground invasion could lead to heavier civilian casualties on the Palestinian side and put Israeli ground forces in danger.

Neither side is showing any sign of halting their heaviest fighting since an eight-day battle in late 2012. Israel says that Hamas must cease rocket fire from Gaza for Israel to consider a truce. Militants have fired hundreds of rockets, striking across the length of Israel and disrupting life across the country.

No Israelis have been seriously harmed as the "Iron Dome" defence system has intercepted at least 70 of the projectiles destined for major cities. The system is designed to intercept rockets headed toward populated areas, while allowing others to fall in open areas.

"The ground option needs to be the last option and only if it is absolutely necessary. It is a carefully designed plan of action," Lerner said.

The Israeli security Cabinet met to discuss its next moves.

Secretary of State John Kerry, in Beijing for a summit with Chinese leaders, said the U.S. is trying to stem the surging violence in a way that allows the Jewish state to continue defending itself from Hamas rocket fire. He called it a "dangerous moment" for the Mideast.

Kerry said he has spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said the operation was going according to plan, with Israel targeting various Hamas interests.

"The military's successes so far have been very significant," he said. "We will continue until they understand that this escalation is not beneficial to them and that we will not tolerate rocket fire toward our towns and citizens."

Palestinian medical officials said one strike early Thursday struck a home in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, killing eight members of the Al Haj family. Tractors cleared away large piles of debris from the demolished building as one man laid atop a mattress and blankets that remained.

An earlier strike killed eight people who were at a Gaza beach cafe watching the World Cup semifinal match between Argentina and the Netherlands, Mahmoud Sawali said, adding at least two of his brothers were among the dead.

"We only ask of help from God. Here I have two brothers who are martyrs, and I'm looking for the third," he said.

The Israeli military said it was investigating both incidents. It also said it struck a car in Gaza carrying three Islamic Jihad militants involved in firing rockets. The militant group confirmed that its men were killed in the strike. Hamas officials said that the Palestinian side of its border crossing with Israel had also been destroyed in Israeli airstrikes.

The Health Ministry in Gaza has reported 85 deaths, including 22 on Thursday. It says about half were women and children though the exact breakdown could not immediately be confirmed.

Israel accuses militants of deliberately endangering civilians by using homes and other civilian buildings for cover. The military has also directly targeted the offices and homes of known militants that it says are used as command centres. The military says it contacts the families first to ask civilians to evacuate before striking its targets. Many of the dead appear to be relatives of wanted militants according to names of the dead provided by the Palestinians.

Hamas is firing rockets from "within houses and streets and neighbourhoods which are populated with civilians ... exposing these civilians to retaliation and to backfire," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor said.

After an overnight lull, militants resumed their barrage toward central and southern Israel. Remnants of a long-range rocket fired from Gaza landed in a gas station in south Tel Aviv after being shot down by the Iron Dome.

The longer range of the rockets fired from Gaza has disrupted life across southern and central Israel, where people have been forced to remain close to home, and kindergartens and summer camps have closed. Israeli television has been a constant news loop with updates from both sides of the border and even radio music stations were interrupting songs with news of every siren informing of incoming rockets.

"We heard the siren and we immediately entered the home shelter," said Avraham Nachum, from the southern Israeli town of Netivot. "One of the boys was in the shower. He didn't manage to step outside of the shower on time."

Besides firing toward Israel's two largest cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Hamas also launched a rocket that reached the town of Zichron Yaakov, more than 100 kilometres (60 miles) north of Gaza.

Initially, Israel said that "quiet would be met with quiet" but as the rocket fire has reached deeper into Israel officials have taken a tougher stand saying the rocket threat against Israel must be lifted.

"The state of Israel is ready for every scenario in order to protect its citizens," said President Shimon Peres. "The Hamas is killing the citizens of Gaza by placing them where rockets are being fired."

Late Thursday, Israeli police said they intercepted a Palestinian car whose two occupants were trying to smuggle a bomb into Israel from the West Bank. Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said the men were arrested at a West Bank checkpoint, and the bomb was being dismantled.

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Jobain reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.

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