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Israeli Gaza Bombing Continues; Deaths Near 350

David Gilkey/NPR
Alyson Hurt/NPR /

Israeli warplanes struck again Monday over the Gaza Strip, the third day of a major offensive aimed at stopping Hamas rocket attacks on towns in southern Israel.

Palestinian doctors in Gaza say the three-day death toll now is approaching 350, including some 80 civilians and more than 1,000 wounded. It's the deadliest violence in Gaza since the 1967 Middle East war.

Two Israelis have been killed by Hamas rockets since the Israeli offensive began.

Rania El Hilou and her husband live in an apartment tower not far from a main Hamas security building in central Gaza City. Israel bombed the Hamas site multiple times over the past three days. The 25-year-old is pregnant with her first child.

Israel is not allowing journalists to enter Gaza. Via phone, Hilou says the air raids have rattled her building and sent debris flying.

"You just wake up in the morning, and you hear the bombing, and the whole building is shaking, and everybody is scared," she says. "All the windows in my apartment were broken as a result of this bombing. And now we don't have the time or the money or even the equipment outside to repair these windows."

And the winter cold and rain have arrived. There are frequent power, water and phone outages, Hilou says, and few dare venture outside. She and her husband have moved a mattress into what they hope is a more protected area of their flat.

Hilou, who teaches at Al-Aqsa University in Gaza, says she looked out her window after one airstrike and saw frantic parents running toward a nearby school — and that she wondered what kind of life her own child might have in today's Gaza.

"I saw all these women and men in their sleeping wear, running in the streets going to the schools to take their kids from there," she says. "Some of these kids were injured. Others were traumatized by the huge bombings. So all these views, it's like a horror movie, and you're just watching over your window. It's very scary situation right now."

Israeli military officials say the airstrikes are reducing the Hamas fire from Gaza. They say the air force has already cut Hamas' ability to launch rockets by 50 percent. But Israel gave similar upbeat assessments in the early days of the 2006 Lebanon war, which many Israelis view as a failure. Then, Hezbollah guerrillas launched rocket barrages every day during the monthlong conflict that the militant group declared a victory.

On Monday, Hamas rocket fire continued, albeit at lower levels than over the weekend.

In Sderot, which borders Gaza, 55-year-old resident Moshe Amsalem stands atop a small hill overlooking the territory. He and a few policemen watch casually through binoculars as plumes of smoke from the airstrikes rise over north Gaza. Amsalem nods approvingly. They've suffered a long time under Hamas rockets, he says, and now it's payback.

"This is the only way. They don't understand any other way," he says. "I hope it continues until they are totally erased. You cannot live with rockets and explosions in the middle of the night, and our children running scared."

Suddenly an alert sounds across the town warning that Qassam rockets have been launched from Gaza toward Sderot, sending everyone running for cover.

Inside a half-constructed house, a policeman sets his wristwatch and counts the seconds until impact.

At least three Qassam rockets slam into a residential area nearby, badly damaging one house. No one is home; Sderot, these days, is largely deserted.

Just over the hill inside Gaza, Israeli attack helicopters buzz overhead as clouds of smoke from airstrikes rise in north Gaza.

In Beit Lahia, a Gaza doctor says five Hamas militants were killed in one airstrike — along with two civilians. Rania El Hilou, whose family is hunkered down in Gaza City, says writing and talking about the ongoing bombardment help her cope.

"You keep praying and making telephone calls to your friends and neighbors because, you know, there is no place safe in Gaza," she says. "We just want to get back to school and normal life, no matter who is in charge here."

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Eric Westervelt is a San Francisco-based correspondent for NPR's National Desk. He has reported on major events for the network from wars and revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa to historic wildfires and terrorist attacks in the U.S.