GAZA CITY, December 27 – Israel blitzed Hamas targets in Gaza on Saturday with a wave of air strikes that killed at least 160 people in the besieged enclave in retaliation for ongoing rocket fire, officials said.,
Another 300 people were wounded, some 120 of them seriously in the attacks. And an Israeli died as Hamas swiftly responded to the air raids by firing several dozen rockets on the Jewish state.
The European Union and its current president, France, urged both sides to stop fighting, as did Britain and Russia.
The United States said Israel should avoid civilian casualties, while the Arab League and a number of Middle Eastern states singled out Israel for blame.
Israel warned that the attacks, in which army radio said around 60 aircraft bombed the impoverished, overcrowded territory of 1.5 million people, was "just the beginnning."
Hamas told Israelis living near Gaza to "prepare the funeral shrouds."
In Gaza, thick clouds of smoke billowed into the sky, with mangled, bloodied and often charred corpses littering the pavement around Hamas security compounds, television images showed.
It was not immediately clear how many of those killed were civilians, with medics saying that the majority of the victims appeared to be members of Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since seizing power there last year.
Dr Moawiya Hassanein, the head of Gaza emergency services, at least 160 people were killed and 300 wounded, and that rescuers were still searching for bodies in the rubble.
The attacks came after days of escalating violence, with militants firing rockets and Israel vowing a fiery response.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas told AFP from Saudi Arabia that he was in "urgent contact" with numerous countries to stop "the cowardly aggressions and massacres in the Gaza Strip."
Egypt, which brokered a six-month Israeli-Hamas truce that expired on December 19, slammed the bombardment.
"Egypt condemns the Israeli military aggression on the Gaza Strip and blames Israel, as an occupying force, for the victims and the wounded," President Hosni Mubarak said in a statement.
He order the Rafah terminal — the only one that bypasses Israel — to be opened to allow wounded Palestinians to be evacuated for treatment in Egyptian hospitals.
Dozens of wounded had passed through by mid-afternoon, Egyptian state news agency Mena reported, with public television saying 200 were expected in the coming hours.
Hamas called on its fighters to "avenge with force against the enemy" while its militants warned Israelis living near the border to "prepare the funeral shrouds," vowing that the Islamists’ response "was on its way."
One rocket hit the southern Israeli town of Netivot, killing a man and wounding four other people, according to the Magen David Adom, Israel’s equivalent of the Red Cross.
Israel, which put communities around Gaza on a state of alert, warned that the deadly strikes were "just the beginning," said an army spokesman.
"The operation will continue and will be expanded as necessary in accordance with the assessments of the army and the defence establishment," Defence Minister Ehud Barak’s office said.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s office said the Israeli onslaught was launched "following… the incessant attacks on Israeli citizens in the south of the country …" in order to "bring the rocket fire to an end."
The bombing hit and destroyed Hamas security structures across Gaza, the group said. A training base of the Hamas military wing, the Ezzedine Al-Qassam Brigades, was pounded in the north.
Hamas said three of its senior officials — the Gaza police chief, the police commander for central Gaza and the head of the group’s bodyguard unit — were killed in the blitz.
The mid-morning air raids followed days of rocket and mortar attacks on Israel by militants inside Gaza, which the Jewish state had warned would be met with harsh reprisals.
Violence in and around the Gaza Strip has flared since the ceasefire ended. It escalated dramatically on Wednesday, when militants fired more than 80 rockets and mortar rounds in response to air strikes on Gaza.
Israel had responded to earlier attacks by tightening the blockade it imposed after Hamas seized Gaza from forces loyal to Abbas.
However, dozens of truckloads of supplies were delivered to Gaza on Friday after Israel decided to temporarily allow in humanitarian aid.
Hamas is sworn to destruction of the Jewish state and has warned that it would retaliate to a major Israeli operation in Gaza by resuming suicide bombings inside Israel. The last such attack claimed by Hamas was in January 2005.