Jerusalem: Israeli warplanes killed nine Palestinians Tuesday, pounding the Gaza Strip in a new campaign to stamp out Hamas rocket fire as the two sides slid toward another major conflict.
In the most serious flare-up over Gaza since November 2012, it comes as Israel struggles to contain a wave of violence in Arab towns over the grisly murder of a Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas demanded that Israel "immediately stop" its air campaign, dubbed Operation Protective Edge, and asked the world to pressure Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu`s government..
But Netanyahu was expected to order a "significant broadening" of the operation and instruct the army to "take off the gloves," a source close to him told army radio.
After nearly four weeks of intensifying rocket fire on the south, Israel appeared bent on dealing the Islamist Hamas movement a heavy blow, with officials speaking of a "staged escalation."
In central Gaza, one man was killed in an air strike west of Nusseirat refugee camp, medics said. Witnesses said he was a member of Hamas`s armed wing, the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades.
Shortly afterwards four men were killed when a missile slammed into a car in the centre of Gaza City, the emergency services said, without giving further details.
Another four were killed in a strike on a house in southern Gaza.
Three more militants were killed in air strikes Monday, two from the Popular Resistance Committees and one from Hamas.
Another five Hamas militants died when a tunnel collapsed near the southern city of Rafah.
A total of 48 Palestinians were injured on Tuesday, four of them seriously, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra said.
Overnight, the army confirmed striking 50 targets and destroying the homes of four Hamas militants in an operation aimed at returning calm to the south, eliminating Hamas`s capabilities and destroying Gaza`s militant infrastructure.
Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri warned Israel was "playing with fire" and would pay for its ongoing operations. The Israeli army was preparing all options to stamp out militant rocket fire from Gaza, including a ground assault, a senior official told AFP.
"The army is preparing for all possible scenarios, including an invasion or a ground operation," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"We have been instructed by the political echelon to hit Hamas hard," military spokesman General Moti Almoz told the radio, saying the operation would take place "in stages".
He also confirmed Israel was preparing for a possible ground offensive.
"All options are on the table, all these steps are being considered. Two brigades, which are currently stationed around the Gaza Strip, are prepared and ready, and in the coming days, more will arrive," he said.
Around Gaza, dozens of tanks and soldiers could be seen massing along the border, AFP correspondents reported.
Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon warned it was likely to be a protracted campaign.
"We are preparing for a campaign against Hamas, which will not end in just a few days," he said in a statement which defined the aim as being "to exact a very heavy price from Hamas."
Since June 12, when the current round of tit-for-tat violence began, more than 250 rockets have hit southern Israel, with another 40 intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system.
So far there have been no Israelis killed.
Since midnight, militants have fired more than 100 rockets at southern Israel, an army spokeswoman told AFP, saying only around 33 of them had hit Israeli territory.
All schools and summer camps were cancelled within a 40 kilometre (25 mile) radius of Gaza, except those being held in protected spaces, army radio reported.
"We have to hit Hamas because our power of deterrence has been reduced," Interior Minister Gideon Saar told public radio.
"No one is enthusiastic about the idea of a military confrontation, but we cannot hesitate any more.
"We cannot restore the calm without proving to Hamas that it is absolutely in its interest to halt attacks on Israel, but to do that, we must hit it sufficiently hard.
The rocket fire on southern Israel drew strong condemnation from both Washington and Brussels.
"We strongly condemn the continuing rocket fire into Israel, but we also support Israel`s right to defend itself against these attacks," US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters.
On a visit to the south, Lars Faaborg Andersen, the European Union`s Ambassador to Israel, also denounced the ongoing fire, expressing the bloc`s "unreserved solidarity" with those living there.
"Indescriminate shooting of rockets against innocent civilians can never be a legitimate response," he said in remarks broadcast on army radio.
"It must stop. The situation must be de-escalated."
The latest flare-up comes as Israel battled to contain a wave of Arab unrest after the grisly kidnap and murder of the Palestinian teenager by Jewish extremists in a suspected revenge attack.
Three of them have confessed, an official close to the investigation told AFP.
The killing sparked five days of clashes between angry protesters and riot police in annexed east Jerusalem and Arab towns across Israel. Police arrested another 39 people overnight, raising the overall number of people detained to 299.