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Nov 15, 2012 | 16:08 GMT

Central Israel Hit as Fighting Escalates - UPDATED

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Update: Israeli media reported that rocket fire has now hit Tel Aviv in the heart of Israel’s most densely populated area. No injuries have been reported. Eyewitnesses said they heard sirens throughout the city along with the sound of at least one explosion. The projectile, which Stratfor believes to be a Fajr-5 rocket due to its range, has reportedly landed in the southern section of Tel Aviv, though emerging reports are conflicting. An Israel Defense Forces spokesman denied that a rocket had landed in Tel Aviv.

The second day of Israel's Operation Pillar of Defense has seen the Israeli air force dramatically widen its target set in the Gaza Strip. More than 200 airstrikes have taken place against Hamas personnel and infrastructure throughout the coastal territory.

Visit our Israel page for related analysis, videos, situation reports and maps.

The ongoing hostilities have also seen what Stratfor believes to be a longer-range rocket — probably a Fajr-3 or Fajr-5 — fired at Rishon Lezion, a city 12 kilometers (7.4 miles) south of Tel Aviv, located in Israel's more densely populated central region. Israel Defense Forces have confirmed that the city has been fired on, making the attack the first of its kind. Hamas has never fired a rocket into central Israel, nor has any rocket been fired that far north.

Range of Gaza Rockets

Range of Gaza Rockets

The increased airstrikes could indicate a few scenarios. The military may be softening targets ahead of infantry deployment. The Israeli Cabinet has authorized the military to mobilize reservists, and Israeli media reported that emergency call-up orders had already been sent to reservists in the Home Front Command. Other reports from Nov. 14 indicated that a limited mobilization of forces was under way. Within the past hour, the IDF has announced that paratroopers and soldiers from the Givati Brigade are massing at a staging ground outside of Gaza to prep for a ground offensive, although this does not in itself suggest that a ground operation is imminent. It takes time to get men and materiel in place, so moving troops there now will give the IDF the option of using them later, if they decide the air campaign has run its course and the core goals of the campaign are not yet accomplished.
 
Otherwise, the uptick in airstrikes could be an attempt to achieve the majority of the IDF's goals through the air. If the air force can degrade Hamas' capabilities and limit or even negate the need for ground forces to undertake the risk of a ground operation, it will.

Hamas, which has lent the operational name "Stones of Shale" to its side of the fighting, has continued to fire short- and medium-range rockets into Israel throughout the conflict — although recent reports suggest the rocket fire has tapered off. According to Palestinian sources, 10 people have been killed in Gaza. The majority of them were Hamas fighters.

The second day of the operation has also included the first Israeli civilian casualties from the rocket fire. Two men and a woman were killed when a rocket fired from Gaza struck their apartment in Kiryat Malachi, a town some 50 kilometers southeast of Tel Aviv. Reports from Israeli media indicate that the three were together when warning sirens sounded but were unable to make it to their bomb shelter in time. Additional accounts of significant injuries to Israeli civilians in southern cities such as Ashdod and Ashkelon have also been reported.

While Israel certainly expected casualties from increased rocket fire when embarking on this operation, the fatalities in Kiryat Malachi, now coupled with the targeting of Israel's major population center, adds political weight to this campaign. Three fatalities is the total number of civilian dead that Israel incurred during Operation Cast Lead (2008-2009), which was the last time the military launched an assault of this size in Gaza. That they have reached that number in less than 48 hours of fighting will pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Cabinet to deliver a success.

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