Israel Widens Air Attack, Gaza Death Toll Tops 125

PHOTO: Palestinians walk around the ruins of the Al-Tawfeeq Mosque after it was hit by an overnight Israeli missile strike in the Nuseirat refugee camp, central Gaza Strip, Saturday, July 12, 2014.
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Israel widened its air assault against the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers on Saturday, hitting a mosque it said was hiding rockets, as Palestinians said their death toll from the five-day offensive rose to over 125.

The military said it has struck more than 1,100 targets, including Hamas rocket launchers, command centers and weapon manufacturing and storage facilities, in a bid to stop relentless rocket fire coming Gaza. Officials in the territory said that besides the mosque, the strikes also hit Hamas-affiliated charities and banks, as well as a home for the disabled, killing two women.

The central Gaza mosque was being used to conceal rockets like those militants have fired nearly 700 times toward Israel over the past five days, the military said. However, the strikes in the densely populated Gaza Strip show the challenge Israel faces as it considers a ground operation that could potentially pose further dangers to civilians.

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While there have been no fatalities in Israel from the continued rocket fire, Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said overnight Israeli strikes raised the death toll there to over 125, with more than 920 wounded.

Hamas militants have been hit hard. Though the exact breakdown of casualties remains unclear, dozens of the dead also have been civilians.

The offensive showed no signs of slowing down Saturday as Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said his country should ready itself for several more days of fighting.

"We have accumulated achievements as far as the price Hamas is paying and we are continuing to destroy significant targets of it and other terror organizations," Yaalon said after a meeting with top security officials. "We will continue to punish it until quiet and security returns to southern Israel and the rest of the country."

Hamas said it hoped the mosque attack would galvanize support for it in the Muslim world.

"(It) shows how barbaric this enemy is and how much it is hostile to Islam," said Husam Badran, a Hamas spokesman in Doha, Qatar. "This terrorism gives us the right to broaden our response to deter this occupier."

The Israeli military released an aerial photo of the mosque it hit, saying Hamas hid rockets in it right next to another religious site and civilian homes. It said Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other Gaza militant groups use this tactic of abusing religious sites to conceal weapons and establish underground tunnel networks, deliberately endangering civilians.

"Hamas terrorists systematically exploit and choose to put Palestinians in Gaza in harm's way and continue to locate their positions among civilian areas and mosques, proving once more their disregard for human life and holy sites," said Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an Israeli military spokesman.

Critics though say such allegations are too sweeping, and that Israel's heavy bombardment of one of the densely populated territories is itself the main factor putting civilians at risk.

Sarit Michaeli of the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem said that while using human shields violates international humanitarian law, "this does not give Israel the excuse to violate international humanitarian law as well."

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