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Israel prepared for ground war in Gaza

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Restaurants and bars across Tel Aviv were half-empty this weekend, as many residents of Israel's commercial center stayed indoors for fear of rocket attacks.

On Saturday evening a siren sounded across the city and its surrounding suburbs, sending beachgoers diving into the sand and pedestrians ducking behind cars. It was the third day in a row that rockets fired by militants in Gaza managed to reach Israel's center.

"Tel Aviv was always a city that was too cool to care," said Boaz Himmel, a waiter at a trendy cafe. "There was war in Lebanon, war in Gaza, war in Syria and we would just sit here sipping cappuccinos."

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On Saturday, however, he said that few customers lingered over their coffee.

"People are definitely going about their daily lives, but you know, they are keeping one ear out for the siren and one eye up at the sky," he said.

Those who were looking toward the south Saturday evening could see the Iron Dome missile interceptor system exploding a rocket which was aimed at southern Tel Aviv. The system, which was deployed in Tel Aviv earlier this weekend, has been one of the great successes of Israel's military arsenal.

As of Friday, police officials said that more than 600 rockets had been fired into Israel by militants in Gaza. Of those, more than half fell in open areas away from civilian infrastructure, and more than 240 were intercepted by the Iron Dome.

"Some people think they don't need to run for cover. They think that Iron Dome is a fail-safe, but it's not," said Ron Huldai, the mayor of Tel Aviv. "We are still urging all Israeli citizens to take cover in shelters or in reinforced areas when they hear the warning sirens."

Hamas militants took responsibility for the rocket fire into central Israel, confirming Israeli claims that they were firing Iranian-made Fajr-5 missiles.

Israel, meanwhile, bombarded the Gaza Strip with more than 300 air strikes, widening its attacks to include Hamas administrative buildings.

An Israeli air strike also destroyed the Hamas prime minister's headquarters, a police compound and a police training area. Witnesses in the southern Gaza Strip said that Israeli air strikes were also hitting the hundreds of smuggling tunnels linking Gaza to Egypt.

Israel's Channel Two News reported that tanks along the Gaza border also opened fire into Gaza Saturday, the first time Israel has used artillery since it launched Operation Pillar of Defense four days ago.

The use of artillery fire furthered speculation that a ground operation into Gaza was imminent.

Speaking to reporters on a military base near Gaza, Maj. Gen. Tal Russo, head of the military's southern command, said that Israel was "absolutely" ready to send in ground troops.

The recent exchanges between Israel and militants in Gaza came as Egypt attempted to broker a ceasefire amid the various Palestinian factions in Gaza.

So far, 42 Palestinians, including 13 civilians, have been killed, while three Israeli civilians have died.

Sheera Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.

 

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