* Israeli planes strike office of Hamas prime minister
* Signs of preparations for possible Israeli invasion of
* Egypt pursues efforts to secure ceasefire
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller
GAZA/JERUSALEM, Nov 17 Israeli aircraft bombed
Hamas government buildings in Gaza, and the "Iron Dome" defence
system shot down a Tel Aviv-bound rocket on Saturday as Israel
geared up for a possible ground invasion.
Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza
Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of
Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh - where he had met on Friday with
the Egyptian prime minister - and struck a police headquarters.
Along the Tel Aviv beachfront, volleyball games came to an
abrupt halt and people crouched as sirens sounded. Two
interceptor rockets streaked into the sky. A flash and an
explosion followed as Iron Dome, deployed only hours earlier
near the city, destroyed the incoming projectile in mid-air.
With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza
border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth
day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a
show of Arab solidarity.
In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President
Mohamed Mursi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir,
the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in
the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.
Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and
Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unravelled
over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has
already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.
Officials in Gaza said 43 Palestinians, nearly half of them
civilians including eight children, had been killed since Israel
began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a
rocket on Thursday.
Israel unleashed its massive air campaign on Wednesday with
the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that
have plagued its southern communities for years.
The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of
government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's
office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.
Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a
news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office
and pledged: "We will declare victory from here."
Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's
rocket attack on Tel Aviv, the third against the city since
Wednesday. It said it fired an Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the
coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of Gaza.
"Well that wasn't such a big deal," said one woman, who had
watched the interception while clinging for protection to the
trunk of a baby palm tree on a traffic island.
In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped
into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.
Among those killed in airstrikes on Gaza on Saturday were at
least four suspected militants riding on motorcycles.
Israel's operation has drawn Western support for what U.S.
and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defence,
along with appeals to avoid civilian casualties.
Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognise
Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to
Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.
At a late night session on Friday, Israeli cabinet ministers
decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set
for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said, in a
signal Israel was edging closer to an invasion.
Around 16,000 reservists have already been called up.
Asked by reporters whether a ground operation was possible,
Major-General Tal Russo, commander of the Israeli forces on the
Gaza frontier, said: "Definitely."
"We have a plan ... it will take time. We need to have
patience. It won't be a day or two," he added.
A possible move into the densely populated Gaza Strip and
the risk of major casualties it brings would be a significant
gamble for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, favourite to win a
January national election.
Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The
last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and
ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over
1,400 Palestinians, mostly civilians. Thirteen Israelis died.
But the Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle
East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a
civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.
"Israel should understand that many things have changed and
that lots of water has run in the Arab river," Tunisian Foreign
Minister Rafik Abdesslem said as he surveyed the wreckage from a
bomb-blast site in central Gaza.
One major change has been the election of an Islamist
government in Cairo that is allied with Hamas, potentially
narrowing Israel's manoeuvering room in confronting the
Palestinian group. Israel and Egypt made peace in 1979.
Netanyahu spoke late on Friday with U.S. President Barack
Obama for the second time since the offensive began, the prime
minister's office said in a statement.
"(Netanyahu) expressed his deep appreciation for the U.S.
position that Israel has a right to defend itself and thanked
him for American aid in purchasing Iron Dome batteries," the
The two leaders have had a testy relationship and have been
at odds over how to curb Iran's nuclear programme.
A White House official said on Saturday Obama called Turkish
Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan to discuss how the two countries
could help bring an end to the Gaza conflict.
Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security adviser,
told reporters that Washington "wants the same thing as the
Israelis want", an end to rocket attacks from Gaza. He said the
United States is emphasising diplomacy and "de-escalation".
In Berlin, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel
said she had spoken to Netanyahu and Egypt's Mursi, stressing to
the Israeli leader that Israel had a right to self-defence and
that a ceasefire must be agreed as soon as possible to avoid
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit
Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in
Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.
The Israeli military said 492 rockets fired from Gaza have
hit Israel since the operation began. Iron Dome intercepted
In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for
the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the
Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually
placid pace of life in the holy city.
Some families in Gaza have abandoned their homes - some of
them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets
- and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.