More than a dozen homes of Hamas commanders or families linked to Hamas were struck on Sunday. Though most were empty — their inhabitants having fled to shelter — at least three had families in them. Al-Kidra said 20 of 27 people killed Sunday were civilians, mostly women and children.
Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, said that "the Israeli people will pay the price" for the killing of civilians.
Israel sought to place the blame on militants, saying they were intentionally operating in places inhabited by civilians. The military has released videos and images of what it says are militants firing rockets from mosques, schools and public buildings.
"Hamas is using the Gaza population as human shields," said Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, the chief Israeli spokesman. "They are exploiting crowded residential urban areas."
He acknowledged, however, that it was not clear whether the militant targeted in Sunday's attack was killed, despite earlier claims of success. "I still don't know what became of him," Mordechai told Channel 10 TV.
The prospect of mounting civilian casualties could quickly change the momentum of Israel's operation. Israel launched the offensive on Wednesday with a lightning airstrike that killed Hamas' military chief. Since then, it has carried out a blistering campaign of more than 1,200 airstrikes, targeting suspected rocket storage and launching sites.
Israel also struck two high-rise buildings housing media outlets, damaging the top-floor offices of the Hamas TV station, Al Aqsa, and a Lebanese-based broadcaster, Al Quds TV, seen as sympathetic to the Islamists. Six Palestinian journalists were wounded, including one who lost a leg, the Gaza press association said.
Foreign broadcasters, including British, German and Italian TV outlets, also had offices in the buildings.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, an Israeli military spokeswoman, said the strikes targeted Hamas communications equipment on the rooftops. She accused the group of using journalists for cover.
Israeli officials expressed readiness to take the offensive even further with a ground invasion of Gaza. Israel has mobilized thousands of forces and columns of armored vehicles along the border ahead of a possible incursion.
"The Israeli military is prepared to significantly expand the operation," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.
The threats come at an important crossroads — with a fateful choice between further escalation or agreeing to a cease-fire with Hamas. Israel and the West consider Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, to be a terrorist group.
Obama and British Foreign Secretary William Hague cautioned against a potential Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.
Obama blamed Palestinian militants for starting the round of fighting by raining rockets onto Israel and said the U.S. supported Israel's right to protect itself. "Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory," Obama said.
Hague also said Hamas "bears principal responsibility" for initiating the violence, but made clear the diplomatic risks of an Israeli escalation. "A ground invasion is much more difficult for the international community to sympathize with or support," he said.
A ground operation would carry grave risks, given the likelihood of heavy casualties on both sides. The Israeli offensive into Gaza four years ago left hundreds of civilians dead, drawing fierce international condemnation and war crimes accusations.
Israel says its intelligence and technology have been perfected since then to minimize civilian casualties. But Gaza's crowded urban landscape makes it all but impossible to avoid them altogether, as Sunday's attack in Gaza City illustrated.
"In this case, you can't avoid collateral damage if they position the rockets in densely populated areas, in mosques, school yards," said Israeli Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon. "We shouldn't be blamed for the outcome."
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