GAZA/JERUSALEM - Israeli air strikes shook Gaza every few minutes on Wednesday, and militants kept up rocket fire at Israel's heartland in intensifying warfare that Palestinian officials said has killed at least 44 people in the Hamas-dominated enclave.
Missiles from Israel's Iron Dome defence system shot into the sky to intercept rockets launched, for the second straight day, at Tel Aviv, the country's commercial capital.
With cries of 'Allahu akbar' (God is great), Palestinians in Gaza cheered as rockets streaked overhead toward Israel, in attacks that could provide a popularity boost for Islamist Hamas, whose rift with neighbouring Egypt's military-backed government has deepened economic hardship.
Other communities near Tel Aviv in central Israel and in the south, closer to Gaza, were also targeted. In the longest-range attack since Tuesday, when Israel stepped up its offensive, a rocket hit near Zichron Yaakov, a town 115 kilometres (70 miles) north of Gaza.
No Israeli fatalities or serious injuries were reported and Israeli news reports hailed as heroes the military crews of the Iron Dome batteries, which are made in Israel and partly funded by the United States. The military said 48 rockets struck Israel on Wednesday, and Iron Dome intercepted 14 others.
With frequent explosions from air strikes echoing through Gaza City, its main shopping street was largely deserted. Local residents reported hundreds of attacks on Wednesday.
The Israeli military said it had bombarded 550 Hamas sites, including 60 rocket launchers and 11 homes of senior Hamas members. It described those dwellings as command centres.
Palestinian officials said at least 25 houses were either destroyed or damaged and not all belonged to militants.
The build-up to the most serious hostilities between Israel and Gaza militants since an eight-day war in 2012 began three weeks ago with rocket attacks following the abduction and killing of three Jewish seminary students in the occupied West Bank.
At least 38 civilians, including 10 children, were among the 44 Palestinian dead in two days of fighting, and some 300 people have been wounded, hospital officials said.
Cairo brokered a truce in the conflict two years ago, but the current government's hostility toward Hamas, which it accuses of aiding militants in Egypt's Sinai peninsula, could make a mediation role more difficult. Hamas denies the allegations.
Palestinian rocket barrages have sent Israelis racing for bomb shelters, with radio stations constantly interrupting regular broadcasts to announce where sirens have sounded. But the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange seemed untroubled, ending the day with shares slightly higher.
Israeli leaders, who seem to have wide popular support at home for the Gaza operation, have warned of a lengthy campaign and possible ground invasion of the heavily populated Palestinian territory.
“We have decided to step up even more the attacks on Hamas and terrorist organisations in Gaza,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement. “The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) are prepared for every option. Hamas will pay a heavy price for firing at Israeli citizens.”
Netanyahu's security cabinet has already approved the potential mobilisation of up to 40,000 reserve troops.
Netanyahu's office said he had discussed the situation with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and that he would speak to other world leaders later.
Life appeared deceptively normal in Israeli cities, where shops were open and roads clogged with traffic. But questions were being asked on radio talkshows about an exit strategy and a timeframe for the offensive.
At a sidewalk cafe on a fashionable avenue in Tel Aviv, Israel's most free-wheeling city, patrons seemed to take an air raid siren in their stride, staying in line for their coffee as joggers and cyclists passed.
Some 80 kilometres (50 miles) away, there were scenes outside homes hit by air strikes of panicked neighbours, including mothers clutching crying children, running into the street to escape what they feared would be another attack.
But at one convenience store, which had remained open, Abu Ahmed, 65, said he was pleased by the militants' resolve.
“I am fine, as long as Tel Aviv is being hit,” he said, as he bought cigarettes.
In an air strike on a home in northern Gaza, a top leader of the Islamic Jihad group and five of his family members were killed, the Palestinian Interior Ministry said. An 80-year-old Palestinian woman was killed in an Israeli attack on another target in central Gaza, local officials said.
A 60-year-old man and his son were also killed when two missiles hit their house in Beit Hanoun in the northern Gaza Strip, medical officials said.
Israeli strikes on militants' homes, local residents said, are usually preceded by either warning fire or a telephone call telling its inhabitants to flee, in an attempt by Israel to avoid civilian casualties. But such bombing sometimes injures or kills people in neighbouring houses.
Washington backed Israel's actions in Gaza, while the European Union and United Nations urged restraint on both sides.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in a German newspaper article to be published on Thursday, said: “At this time of danger, everyone involved must protect the innocent and act in a sensible and measured way, not with revenge and retaliation.”
Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is based in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and entered a power-sharing arrangement with Hamas in April after years of feuding, said he had spoken to Egypt about the Gaza crisis.
“This war is not against Hamas or any faction but is against the Palestinian people,” Abbas said in a speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
Under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Cairo has secured closures on the Egyptian-Gaza border, increasing economic pressure on Hamas from a long-running Israeli blockade.
“Sisi stressed Egypt was interested in the safety of the Palestinian people in the Gaza Strip and sparing this grave assault,” a statement from Abbas's office said, adding that Cairo would “exert efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire”.
But Israel appeared to play down any expectations that Egypt would intervene soon.
Asked whether Egypt was acting to calm the situation, Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz, said on Israel Radio: “We have a degree of cooperation, or dialogue, with Egypt, on which I won't elaborate. It is not so significant.”
In the West Bank, about 400 Palestinian youths, chanting their support for Hamas's armed wing, threw stones at an Israeli army checkpoint on Wednesday. Soldiers responded with tear gas and rubber bullets.
Israel has blamed Hamas for the killing of the three Jewish seminary students who disappeared while hitchhiking in the West Bank on June 12. Hamas has neither confirmed nor denied a role.
The rocket fire from Gaza began after Israel arrested hundreds of Hamas activists in a West Bank sweep it mounted in tandem with a search for the youths, who were found dead last week. A Palestinian teen was abducted and killed in Jerusalem last Wednesday in a suspected revenge murder. Six Israelis have been arrested in that case.
While threatening an “earthquake” of escalation against Israel, Hamas said it could restore calm if Israel halted the Gaza offensive, once again committed to a 2012 ceasefire truce and freed the prisoners it detained in the West Bank last month.