Israel launched attacks on more than 50 targets in Gaza overnight, and is no longer ruling out a ground assault. Hamas has threatened massive retaliation. Is the Mideast on the brink of a new war?
Air-raid sirens pierced the air in the evening and night hours across southern Israel as a barrage of rockets and grenades was fired from Gaza into Israel nearly every minute.
Public shelters were opened, and authorities ordered the population to either go to a shelter or make sure they could reach one within 15 seconds.
The Israeli military bombed more than 50 sites in Gaza, according to an army spokesperson. Several Palestinian families were warned so they could leave their homes before the attack. There are no public shelters in that region, and at least 14 people were reported injured. A German cruise ship anchored in the Israeli port city Ashdod got caught in the crossfire -reportedly, passengers and crew on their way to Crete were unharmed.
Attacks from both sides
"Operation Protective Edge has begun," an army spokesman tweeted Tuesday shortly after 1:00 a.m., referring to the Israeli army's most recent offensive on the tiny coastal strip. On Monday (07.06.2014), 1,500 additional reservists were made active. Following a three-hour debate, Israel's security cabinet decided on a step-by-step expansion of attacks on Gaza, according to media reports.
The operation comes in the wake of a massive barrage of rocket attacks from Hamas in response to Israeli air raids that killed at least seven members of the Qassam Brigades (the group's military wing).
"The Zionist occupying forces will pay the price," Hamas spokesperson Sami Abu Zuhri said. The Qassam Brigades warned they would fire rockets on Tel Aviv "if Israeli aggression doesn't stop."
Rough times ahead
Once again, a cycle of violence threatens civilians on both sides.
After Israel's Pillar of Defense operation in November 2012 and the three-week Gaza War in late 2008, (also known as Operation Cast Lead), this is the third military operation in seven years. Israeli media is already debating how far the attacks will go this time.
On Monday, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced an end to his Israel Beitenu party's alliance with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud. He named opposing views on the next steps in Gaza as the reason for the split - which does not affect the governing coalition.
Lieberman is in favor of increased military action in Gaza to dismantle Hamas.
The army is also no longer ruling out launching a ground assault. A spokesman said Tuesday the army has been given the go-ahead to activate additional reservists.
Situation in Gaza deteriorates
Just this past weekend, reports hinted at a possible return to the Egypt-brokered 2012 ceasefire. Israel, they said, would answer "quiet with quiet." Hamas also made de-escalating remarks. But Monday's air strike on members of the Qassam Brigades appears to have put pressure on the group's militant wing.
After the latest Israeli attacks, Hamas denounced Israel's bombing of houses as "exceeding all red lines." Up until now, the Israeli Air Force mainly bombed military targets.
Hamas has so far adhered to the - occasionally fragile - 2012 ceasefire, posting patrols along the border to prevent smaller militant groups from firing rockets into Israel.
Over the past months, the situation in Gaza has deteriorated considerably for the strip's 1.7 million residents. The Rafah border crossing on the Egyptian border is almost always closed. Power blackouts up to 10 hours daily disrupt everyday life, and unemployment has skyrocketed after many tunnels to the Egyptian side were destroyed.
The creation of a new interim government of "national consensus" last month hasn't changed the situation. Despite a process of reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, salaries for about 40,000 civil servants of the former Hamas government have not been paid.
Drop in the bucket
The kidnapping and murder of three Israeli students near a settlement in the West Bank escalated the situation.
Israel's military blamed Hamas for the abduction and launched a massive manhunt. Hamas, however, never claimed responsibility for the kidnapping. At the time, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that "Hamas would pay a high price." Hundreds of Hamas members were arrested in the West Bank search, partially disabling the group's social infrastructure.
The three teenagers' bodies were found in the West Bank last week. The subsequent murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager from East Jerusalem - allegedly by Israeli extremists - triggered further unrest in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and several Arab cities in northern Israel. The unrest flared overnight Tuesday.