GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel destroyed the headquarters of Hamas’ prime minister and blasted a sprawling network of smuggling tunnels in the southern Gaza Strip on Saturday, broadening a blistering four-day-old offensive against the Islamic militant group even as diplomatic efforts to broker a cease-fire appeared to be gaining steam.
In neighboring Egypt, President Mohammed Morsi hosted leaders from Hamas and two key allies, Qatar and Turkey, to seek a way to end the fighting.
“There are discussions about the ways to bring a cease-fire soon, but there are no guarantees until now,” Morsi said at a news conference. He said he was working with Turkey, Arab countries, the U.S., Russia and western European countries to halt the fighting.
Israel launched the operation on Wednesday in what it said was an effort to end months of rocket fire out of the Hamas-ruled territory. It began the offensive with an unexpected airstrike that killed Hamas’ powerful military chief, and since then has relentlessly targeted suspected rocket launchers and storage sites.
In all, 46 Palestinians, including 15 civilians, have been killed and more than 400 civilians wounded, according to medical officials. Three Israeli civilians have been killed and more than 50 wounded.
Israeli military officials expressed satisfaction with their progress Saturday, claiming they have inflicted heavy damage to Hamas.
“Most of their capabilities have been destroyed,” Maj. Gen. Tal Russo, Israel’s southern commander, told reporters. Asked whether Israel is ready to send ground troops into Gaza, he said: “Absolutely.”
The White House said President Barack Obama was also in touch with the Egyptian and Turkish leaders. The U.S. has solidly backed Israel so far.
Speaking on Air Force One, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes said that the White House believes Israel “has the right to defend itself” against attack and that the Israelis will make their own decisions about their “military tactics and operations.”
The White House, which like Israel considers Hamas a terrorist organization, also continued to support Israel. “We believe Israel has a right to defend itself, and they’ll make their own decisions about the tactics they use in that regard,” deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes told reporters on Air Force One.
Despite the bruising offensive, Israel has failed to slow the barrages of rockets from Gaza.
The Israeli military said 160 rockets were launched into Israel on Saturday, raising the total number to roughly 500 since this week’s fighting began. Eight Israelis, including five civilians, were lightly wounded Saturday, the army said.
Israel carried out at least 300 airstrikes on Saturday, the military said, and it broadened its array of targets. One air raid flattened the three-story office building used by Hamas’ prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. He was not inside the building at the time.
In southern Gaza, aircraft went after the tunnels that militants use to smuggle in weapons and other contraband from neighboring Egypt. Tunnel operators said the intensity of the bombing was unprecedented, and that massive explosions could be heard kilometers (miles) away, both in Gaza and in Egypt.
The operators, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the illicit nature of their business, said they cannot approach the tunnel area to assess the damage, but the blasts appeared to be more powerful than in Israel’s last major push to destroy the tunnels during a previous offensive four years ago. The tunnels are a key lifeline for Hamas, bringing in both weapons and supporting a lucrative trade that helps fund the group’s activities.
Missiles also smashed into two small security facilities and the massive Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City, setting off a huge blaze that engulfed nearby houses and civilian cars parked outside, the Interior Ministry reported. No one was inside the buildings.
Air attacks knocked out five electricity transformers, cutting off power to more than 400,000 people in southern Gaza, according to the Gaza electricity distribution company. People switched on backup generators for limited electrical supplies.
Hamas has unveiled an arsenal of more powerful, longer-range rockets this week, and for the first time has struck at Israel’s two largest cities, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Both cities, more than 45 miles from Gaza, had previously been beyond rocket range.