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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Under an unprecedented hail of Katyusha-style Grad missiles, Ashkelon's citizens battened down the hatches and braced for the worst Thursday, as IAF strikes shook the Gaza Strip in response to one of the worst barrages of rocket fire on the western Negev and Ashkelon in seven years.
OC Home Front Command Yair Golan visited Ashkelon, where about a dozen Grad missiles fired from the northern Gaza Strip landed throughout the day.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Thursday night approved the activation in Ashkelon of the already installed "Color Red" warning system there. The system has long been in use in Sderot to allow residents a few extra seconds to seek shelter before rockets thunder in. Until Barak's approval, Ashkelon's more than 100,000 residents had no advance warning of incoming missiles.
One of Thursday's Grads struck a house in the city, where a child was home alone. This first rocket to hit an Ashkelon home burst through the wall, causing damage to the residence as well as to neighbors' houses, but the young boy escaped without injury. He was treated for shock by MDA emergency crews.
A 17-year-old girl was less fortunate later in the evening, when a missile landed near her, its shrapnel wounding her lightly.
Meanwhile in the Gaza Strip, the IDF kept up the pressure on the territory's Hamas leadership, rocking the coastal zone with over a dozen separate IAF attacks against a variety of targets, including, according to IDF sources, Kassam-launching cells, armed terrorists and vehicles carrying wanted operatives.
At least 29 Palestinians have been killed, including 18 on Thursday - most of them combatants - and dozens have been wounded since the recent IDF antiterror operations began on Wednesday. Late Wednesday, a six-month-old baby was killed, and children aged 10 and 11 were killed on Thursday, Palestinians said.
Thursday afternoon and evening, IAF missiles targeted a facility that IDF spokespeople said was used for manufacturing weapons; in addition, they attacked a Hamas paramilitary base.
Hamza al-Haya, the son of Hamas lawmaker Khalil al-Haya, was among those killed Thursday, according to Hamas. The group said he had commanded a rocket-launching squad in northern Gaza.
Khalil al-Haya is one of Hamas's top figures in Gaza and has escaped assassination attempts, including an air strike that killed his brother last year.
Visiting the morgue at Gaza City's Shifa Hospital Thursday, Haya said he was proud that his son had lost his life for the Hamas cause, like many of his relatives. "I thank God for this gift," he said. "This is the 10th member of my family to receive the honor of martyrdom."
Several thousand people joined the funeral procession.
Palestinians said the air strikes also heavily damaged the offices of the Palestinian Medical Relief Society, a local humanitarian group.
Dr. Abdel Hadi Abu Khoussa, the center's director, said an ambulance, medicine and most of the equipment were ruined. "The destruction is a terrible blow to our activities and will increase the suffering of the people of Gaza," he said.
Earlier Thursday, one of Public Security Minister Avi Dichter's security guards was wounded when a Kassam landed at the entrance to Sapir College, where the minister was paying a visit. The guard was hit in the leg by shrapnel and was evacuated in good condition to Barzilai Hospital in Ashkelon.
During his visit, Dichter said that the solution to the rocket problem lay in bolstering Israel's deterrence, not taking over the Gaza Strip.
"All the ideas about conquering Gaza are just not serious. Even if Gaza is taken over tomorrow, it will take years to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure. Therefore, bolstering our deterrence, in the first stage, is the most important goal, in order to give the necessary signals so that the other side understands that it [terror activity] simply doesn't pay off," said Dichter.
AP contributed to this report.