Gaza: Biggest flare-up since 2014 as Israel pounds enclave
The military claimed the centre was a Hamas military base. It is among the 200 targets struck by Israel since Wednesday evening and a similar number of Hamas rockets sent in return.
The fighting showed no signs of relenting despite Hamas and Israel coming close to finalising a long-term ceasefire deal brokered by Egypt and the UN.
In all, Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes during the day, killing at least three Palestinians, including a pregnant woman and her 1-year-old daughter, while Palestinian militants fired scores of rockets into Israel, wounding seven people.
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Israel's Channel 10 TV said Netanyahu delayed the meeting of his Security Cabinet by two hours to allow the Egyptians to press forward with their work towards the ceasefire deal.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing closed consultations, said Netanyahu instructed the army to prepare for "every possibility."
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israel had "ground troops that are ready to deploy. We are reinforcing the southern command and Gaza division." He wouldn't comment on Israeli media reports of troops preparing for a possible ground operation.
|Gazans inspect the damage caused by the strikes on
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Despite the animosity, the enemies have signaled, through their contacts with Egypt, that they want to avoid another war.
Hamas is demanding the lifting of an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade that has devastated Gaza's economy, while Israel wants an end to rocket fire, as well as recent border protests and launches of incendiary balloons, and the return of the remains of two dead soldiers and two Israelis believed to be alive and held by Hamas.
A Palestinian rocket struck the southern city of Beersheba late in the afternoon, landing in an open area. It was the first time a rocket had hit the city since the 2014 war.
Shortly after, an Israeli airstrike flattened the five-story cultural centre in the Shati refugee camp, a crowded neighborhood of Gaza City. The airstrike set off a powerful explosion and sent a huge plume of black smoke into the air, causing crowds to scream in panic.
The building is home to a popular theatre and exhibits plays and other shows on a daily basis. An Egyptian-Palestinian cultural society also has an office in the building.
"The deliberate targeting of a cultural centre with airstrikes and destruction ... is a barbaric act," said Hazem Qassem, a Hamas spokesman. He said the destruction of the Egyptian cultural office was "an Israeli attempt to sabotage" the Egyptian ceasefire efforts.
The Israeli military said the building served as a Palestinian military installation. Hamas' Interior Ministry, including its secret police, has offices in an adjacent site, but those offices were not hit in the airstrike.
Gaza's Health Ministry identified those killed in the airstrikes as 23-year-old Enas Khamash and her 18-month-old daughter Bayan, as well as a Hamas fighter, Ali Ghandour. The ministry said the militant and the civilians were killed in separate incidents.
Kamal Khamash, brother-in-law of the killed woman, said the family was asleep when the projectile hit the house. The mother and daughter died immediately and the father is in critical condition, Kamal said. Enas was also pregnant, the Health Ministry said.
"This is a blatant crime and Israel is responsible for it," he said.
In southern Israel, two Thai labourers were among the seven wounded by rocket or mortar fire, and rockets damaged buildings in the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon. The military said it intercepted some 30 rockets, while most of the others landed in open areas.
Nickolay Mladenov, the UN Middle East envoy, said he was "deeply alarmed" and appealed for calm. He said the situation "can rapidly deteriorate with devastating consequences for all people."
Tension along the Israel-Gaza border has escalated since late March, when Palestinians began rallying along the Israeli imposed perimeter fence every week demanding the end to the blockade.
Israel and Hamas have engaged in several bouts of fighting this month. The latest round erupted on Tuesday, when the Israeli military struck a Hamas military post in Gaza after it said militants fired on Israeli troops on the border. Hamas said two of its fighters were killed after taking part in a gunfire parade inside a militant camp.
The incident occurred while a group of senior Hamas leaders from abroad were visiting Gaza to discuss the ceasefire efforts with local leaders.
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A top Hamas official told The Associated Press that the group waited for the delegation to leave Gaza before responding with rocket fire late on Wednesday.
Over the past four months, 163 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire, including at least 120 protesters, according to the Gaza Health Ministry and a local rights group. An Israeli soldier was killed by a Gaza sniper during this period.
Israel has come under heavy international criticism for its routine use of lethal force against unarmed protesters.
Agencies contributed to this report.
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