GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) - Israeli warplanes retaliating for rocket fire from the Gaza Strip pounded dozens of security compounds across the Hamas-ruled territory in unprecedented waves of airstrikes Saturday, killing more than 200 people and wounding nearly 400 in the single bloodiest day of fighting in years.
Most of those killed were security men, but an unknown number of civilians were also among the dead. Hamas said all of its security installations were hit, threatened to resume suicide attacks, and sent at least 70 rockets and mortar shells crashing into Israeli border communities, according to the Israeli military. One Israeli was killed and at least six people were hurt.
With so many wounded, the Palestinian death toll was likely to rise.
The strikes caused widespread panic and confusion in Gaza, as black clouds of smoke rose above the territory, ruled by Hamas for the past 18 months. Some of the Israeli missiles struck in densely populated areas as children were leaving school, and women rushed into the streets frantically looking for their children.
"My son is gone, my son is gone," wailed Said Masri, a 57-year-old shopkeeper, as he sat in the middle of a Gaza City street, slapping his face and covering his head with dust from a bombed-out security compound nearby.
He said he had sent his 9-year-old son out to purchase cigarettes minutes before the airstrikes began and now could not find him. "May I burn like the cigarettes, may Israel burn," Masri moaned.
The offensive began eight days after a six-month truce between Israel and the militants expired. The Israeli army says Palestinian militants have fired some 300 rockets and mortars at Israeli targets over the past week, and in recent days, Israeli leaders had threatened to launch a major offensive.
"There is a time for calm and there is a time for fighting, and now is the time for fighting," said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, vowing to expand the operation if necessary.
Asked whether Hamas political leaders might be targeted, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni declared at a news conference: "Hamas is a terrorist organization and nobody is immune."
The first round of airstrikes on Gaza came just before noon. More than 100 attacks took place, continuing well into the evening.
Hospitals crowded with people, civilians rushing in wounded people in cars, vans and ambulances. "There are heads without bodies .... There's blood in the corridors. People are weeping, women are crying, doctors are shouting, " said nurse Ahmed Abdel Salaam from Shifa Hospital, Gaza's main treatment center.
The offensive sparked angry protests throughout the Arab world, and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, the Vatican, the U.N. secretary-general and special Mideast envoy Tony Blair all called for an immediate restoration of calm. The Arab League scheduled an emergency meeting Sunday to discuss the situation.
In Washington, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said, "Hamas' continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the
violence is to stop. The United States urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza."
In Gaza City's main security compound, bodies of more than a dozen uniformed Hamas police lay on the ground. One survivor raised his index finger in a show of Muslim faith, uttering a prayer. The Gaza police chief was among those killed. One man, his face bloodied, sat dazed on the ground as a fire raged nearby.
By early evening, 205 Gazans were known to be dead and 388 wounded, Gaza health official Dr. Moaiya Hassanain said. He did not
provide figures on civilian deaths. But earlier in the day, police said about 140 Hamas security forces were killed. Some of the dead, rolled in blankets, were laid out on the floor of Gaza's main hospital for identification.
Israeli military officials said more than 100 tons of bombs were dropped on Gaza by mid-afternoon. They spoke on condition of anonymity under military guidelines.
Defiant Hamas leaders threatened revenge. Hamas "will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood," vowed spokesman Fawzi Barhoum.
Israel told its civilians near Gaza to take cover, and in the West Bank, moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a bitter rivalry with Hamas, condemned Israel. Egypt summoned the Israeli ambassador to express condemnation and opened its border with Gaza to allow ambulances to drive out some of the wounded.
Despite the overwhelming show of force, it was not clear whether it would halt the rocket fire. Past operations have failed to stop the attacks.
One rocket struck the Israeli town of Netivot, killing an Israeli man and wounding four people, rescue services said.
Dozens of stunned residents, some of them weeping, gathered around the house that took the deadly rocket hit. A hole gaped in one of the walls, which was pocked with shrapnel marks. The crowd broke up after an alert siren went off and everyone went running.
Streets were nearly empty in Sderot, the Israeli border town that has been pummeled hardest by rockets. A few cars carried panicked residents leaving town. Dozens of people congregated on a hilltop to watch the Israeli aerial attacks.
Protests against the campaign erupted in Arab Israeli villages, the Abbas-ruled West Bank and across the Arab world.
The most violent West Bank response came in the city of Hebron, where dozens of youths, many of them masked, hurled rocks for hours
at Israeli forces, who lobbed tear gas and stun grenades in response. Officials in Bethlehem, Jesus' traditional birthplace, turned off Christmas lights and traders shuttered shops to protest the Israeli attack.
Anti-Israel protests also erupted in Amman, Jordan, and in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Syria.
Israel has targeted Gaza in the past, but the number of simultaneous attacks was unprecedented.
Israel left Gaza in 2005 after a 38-year occupation, but the withdrawal did not lead to better relations with Palestinians in the territory as Israeli officials had hoped.
Instead, the evacuation was followed by a sharp rise in militant attacks on Israeli border communities that on several occasions provoked harsh Israeli military reprisals.
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)