JERUSALEM — Civilian casualties mounted in the Gaza Strip on Wednesday as Israel intensified its airstrikes on targets across the territory in an escalating offensive against the Islamist group Hamas.
The militant faction, which controls Gaza, deepened its rocket strikes on Israel, reaching areas south of the northern port city of Haifa.
The Gaza Health Ministry said that 54 people had been killed in the Israeli bombardments, many of them civilians, and more than 450 were injured.
In Israel, air-raid sirens wailed and people took cover as rockets sailed toward cities and towns across the country, including Tel Aviv. But most landed in open areas or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.
As the conflict escalated, there were no signs that either side was prepared to step back.
“We’ve decided to intensify even more the attacks on Hamas and the terrorist organizations in Gaza,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after meeting with the defense minister and the army chief of staff. “Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing at the citizens of Israel.”
Officials of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group said there were no discussions of a possible cease-fire. “There is no talk today about any calm with this Zionist entity,” said Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas lawmaker in Gaza.
The spiraling violence was triggered last month by the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank, which Israel blamed on Hamas. Israel launched a crackdown on Hamas in the West Bank, drawing increased rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, which it met with stepped-up airstrikes.
The deaths of six Hamas members in an explosion in a Gaza tunnel on Monday triggered a fresh wave of rocket launches, prompting the Israeli offensive.
As Israel stepped up its aerial attacks Wednesday on dozens of homes of militant operatives and other targets across the Gaza Strip, there were increasing reports of civilian deaths. The coastal enclave is densely populated, and the bombardments in crowded neighborhoods caused mounting casualties.
Among those reported killed in separate strikes on Wednesday was a mother and her two children, a woman and her 1 1/2-year-old son, and another woman and her 14-year-old boy.
On Tuesday night, a strike hit the family home of Hafez Hamad, a commander in the militant Islamic Jihad group, killing him along with his mother, his wife, two brothers and a niece, neighbors said. The army confirmed that Hamad had been killed, saying he had been responsible for recent rocket attacks on the southern Israeli town of Sderot.
Military officials said that nearly 600 targets in Gaza had been hit with more than 400 tons of ordnance. Along with homes of militant commanders, the targets included training bases, military compounds, weapons depots, tunnels and concealed rocket launching sites, the army said.
Militants in Gaza have fired more than 300 rockets and mortars at Israel, according to the Israeli military.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reacted angrily to the Israeli strikes on homes.
“Targeting a house with people inside it?” he said. “What do you call this crime? Killing a whole family. Is this collective punishment? It’s collective extermination.”
In a phone conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry, Netanyahu accused Gaza militants of purposely operating from civilian neighborhoods.
“Hamas is perpetrating a double war crime by deliberately trying to attack Israeli civilians while using the civilian population in Gaza as human shields,” Netanyahu said, according to his office. “Therefore, Hamas is responsible when civilians in Gaza are hit by mistake.”
Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org