TEL AVIV // Israel attacked dozens of security compounds and weapons storage facilities throughout the Gaza Strip yesterday, killing at least 210 Palestinians, including women and children, and wounding more than 700 others in the bloodiest single day for Palestinians in more than two decades of conflict. More than 80 Israeli planes and combat helicopters pounded Hamas security installations in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said, in what the government claimed was retaliation for rocket fire by militants. Health officials in Gaza, who confirmed the deaths, said many of the dead were members of security forces belonging to Hamas, but that many were civilians, including children. Some of the Israeli missiles struck in densely populated areas as children were leaving school sending panicked mothers into the streets frantically looking for their children, the Associated Press reported. It was not clear at press time how many of the casualties were children. Television footage showed dead and wounded Palestinians lying scattered on the ground near Hamas's security posts, as wailing ambulances rushed through the streets. News agencies reported that morgues across the enclave ran out of room for bodies. Hamas said more than 100 members of its security forces were killed in the attacks, including the police chief and the head of the security and protection unit. As panic and confusion reigned on Gaza's streets, militants fired several medium-range Grad rockets into Israeli territory, reaching deeper into Israel and killing one civilian while injuring five others. The carnage came just days after a six-month ceasefire between Israel and Hamas expired on Dec 19. Since then, Israel has launched air strikes that killed at least six militants in Gaza and kept its borders with the territory shut. The numerous plumes of black smoke that rose above Gaza seemed to usher in a new stage of violence after months of relative quiet, with Israel threatening to demolish Hamas's infrastructure, and the militant organisation threatening to strike back with all its might. Ahmed Abdel Qader, a 24-year-old Gaza salesman, said he was walking along one of the main streets in the centre of Gaza City when he heard "massive, simultaneous" explosions.
"I was on the street buying a falafel when they hit about 500 metres away from me," he said. "There was a sudden panic, cars stopped and people were running everywhere. Some parents were on the street looking for their children." Mr Abdel Qader said he immediately headed to the nearby Shifa Hospital along with hundreds of others to search for relatives or acquaintances who might have been injured or killed. He added that his cousin Mohammad, a 27-year-old policeman who had been on duty at a security post targeted by Israel, was among those killed. In Rafah, Omar, a 22-year-old Palestinian who asked that his last name not be published, said he was driving along one of the main roads when a missile struck a security compound some 250 metres away. "I got out of the car and ran as fast as I could," he said. "Everyone was running in the street to find safety - we didn't know what was happening." Israel said its strikes aimed at destroying "terrorist infrastructure" and warned it may expand its operation and possibly target Hamas leaders. "We face a period that will be neither easy nor short, and will require determination and perseverance until the necessary change is achieved in the situation in the south," Israel's defence minister, Ehud Barak, said last night. He added that the operation would be "as deep and wide as necessary ? it won't be easy and won't be short". He did not elaborate on whether he plans to send ground forces into Gaza. Hamas warned Israelis living near the Palestinian enclave to "prepare the funeral shrouds". "We will not stand down and we will not cave in even if [the Israelis] should eradicate the Gaza Strip or kill thousands of us," Ismail Haniya, who heads the Hamas government, said in a radio address. Hamas militants had pelted southern Israeli communities with dozens of rockets and mortars, sowing panic but claiming no deaths or injuries. Last week, the Israeli security cabinet gave the army the go-ahead for an expanded operation in Gaza. On Thursday, Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, warned militants of an all-out assault. Mr Olmert said in an interview with Al-Arabiya television that he would not "hesitate to use Israel's strength", and that "tens of thousands of children and innocents" would be at risk "as a result of Hamas's actions". Within hours of the Israeli attack, Gaza militants threatened to take revenge at Israel, possibly with suicide attacks. The spokesman for Hamas's military wing said the group "will teach the enemy a lesson they will never forget". Militants fired at least 30 rockets at Israel, killing one man in his 50s and injuring several others in the southern development town of Netivot. Palestinians in Ramallah, Hebron, and East Jerusalem, staged protests against the attacks, prompting some clashes with the Israeli army. Throughout the Arab world, officials and leaders condemned the attacks and called for a return to the beleaguered peace process. The Israeli military may have chosen yesterday - a sunny day with mostly clear skies - to launch the attack because the previous few days were stormy and could have made an aerial assault difficult, Israeli media reported. The mid-morning attacks appeared to catch Gazans by surprise because workers filled official buildings and security compounds, and children were at school. "Israel wants to hurt Hamas so badly that the group will want to end the fighting and ask to reach a truce with no conditions," said Alon Ben David, the military analyst for Israel's Channel 10 TV. But many analysts argued that the attack provided Hamas with an opening and may end up strengthening the group instead. Some experts said the Israeli military expects Hamas to fire as many as 200 rockets a day in response to the air strikes. In southern Israel, residents were advised to remain at home or stay inside bomb shelters, and streets appeared empty throughout the day. Yesterday's attacks came about nine weeks before Israel conducts national elections, a race in which political analysts say events surrounding Gaza could affect the outcome. The top two contenders in the race for the premiership have both pressed the government in recent days to act more aggressively against the rocket fire from Gaza. Both Benjamin Netanyahu, of the right-wing Likud Party, which is currently ahead in the polls, and the foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, of the more centrist Kadima Party, have declared they would work to topple Hamas rule in Gaza if elected. firstname.lastname@example.org