Update: Gaza rocket kills 3 in southern Israel, media say

Israeli media are reporting that a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on Thursday hit an apartment building in southern Israel and killed three people.

CAIRO/JERUSALEM — A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip on Thursday struck an apartment building in southern Israel, killing three people, Israeli media said.

It was the first report of Israeli fatalities since Israel launched an air assault on the Gaza Strip a day earlier.

State media are reporting Thursday that Egypt's Foreign Minister Kamel Amr has called on the United States to intervene and end "Israeli aggression" on the Gaza Strip.

Amr "requested that the United States immediately intervene to stop Israeli aggression on the Palestinian people in Gaza", MENA news agency reported, adding that Amr spoke to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by telephone.

On Wednesday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called for an urgent Arab League meeting on Israel's strikes on Gaza, Egypt's news agency MENA said, quoting a Palestinian official in Egypt.

"Barakat al-Fara, the Palestinian ambassador in Cairo and the Palestinian representative in the Arab League, announced that based on instructions from President Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian state had asked for an urgent meeting of the Arab League to discuss the Israeli offensive on Gaza strip," MENA said.

Israel launched a major offensive against Palestinian militants in Gaza Wednesday, killing the military commander of Hamas in an air strike and threatening an invasion of the enclave that the Islamist group vowed would "open the gates of hell."

The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting late on Wednesday to discuss the Israeli assault. It called for a halt to the violence, but took no action.

Expecting days or more of fighting, Israel warned Hamas that all its men were in its sights and dropped leaflets in Gaza telling residents to keep their distance from militants and Hamas facilities.

"The leaflets stress that Hamas is dragging the region toward violence, and that the IDF is prepared to defend the residents of the State of Israel until quiet is restored to the region," the military said in a statement.

The Arab League is expected shortly to issue a statement condemning the strikes, according to an Arab League official.

Deputy Arab League chief Ahmed Ben Helli told Al Jazeera television that the League had spoken with the Palestinian President and some Arab ministers to decide on what could be done in reaction to the Israeli strikes.

Egypt's foreign ministry earlier condemned and called for a halt of the Israeli strikes, but Israel is expecting long days of combat in the embattled area.

"Foreign Minister Mohamed Kamel Amr condemned the series of air strikes that Israel is currently conducting against Gaza Strip and which led to the killing of Ahmed Al-Jaabari," the statement released by Egypt's foreign ministry said.

"He called on Israel to stop its strikes on Gaza Strip immediately," the statement added.

Israel military officials believe its aerial assault could draw cross-border Palestinian rocket attacks and stretch into days of fighting, including a ground offensive if required.

"The days we face in the south will, in my estimation, prove protracted," Brig. Gen. Yoav Mordechai told Channel 2 TV after Israeli air strikes killed Al-Jaabari. "The homefront must brace itself resiliently."

Mordechai said Israel was both responding to a surge in Palestinian rocket salvoes earlier this week and trying to prevent Hamas and other Palestinian factions from building up their arsenals further.

Among the targets of Wednesday's air strikes were underground caches of longer-range Hamas rockets, he said.

Asked if Israel might send ground forces into Gaza, Mordechai said: "There are preparations, and if we are required to, the option of a entry by ground is available."

An Israeli airstrike killed the commander of the military wing of Gaza's Hamas rulers Wednesday in a dramatic resumption of Israel's policy of assassinating Palestinian militant leaders.

Ahmed Jabari was the most senior Hamas official to be killed since an Israeli invasion of Gaza four years ago. Jabari has long topped Israel's most-wanted list and was notorious in Israel, which blamed him for in a string of attacks, including the kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Schalit in 2006.

Witnesses said Jabari was traveling in a vehicle in Gaza City when the car exploded. Crowds of people and security personnel rushed to the scene of the strike, trying to put out the fire that had engulfed the car and left it a charred shell.

Hamas police cordoned off the area around a hospital where at least one body from the strike was taken. It was draped in a white sheet, with a burned leg poking out. Hamas said another man was killed in the airstrike.

Hamas police said three other airstrikes hit other targets in Gaza City, Khan Younis and Rafah.

Israeli officials had said that they were considering assassinating top Hamas officials following a wave of rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip at southern Israel, triggering Israeli airstrikes. The exchanges appeared to be waning Tuesday.

Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under army regulations, said Jabari was identified by "precise intelligence" gathered over several months.

Advocates say targeted killings are an effective deterrent without the complications associated with a ground operation, chiefly civilian and Israeli troop casualties. Proponents argue they also prevent future attacks by removing their masterminds.

Critics say they invite retaliation by militants and encourage them to try to assassinate Israeli leaders. They complain that the strikes amount to extrajudicial killings.

During a wave of suicide bombings against Israel a decade ago, the country employed the tactic to eliminate the upper echelon of Hamas leadership.

Israeli aircraft have previously assassinated the previous commander of Hamas' military wing, Salah Shehadeh, the movement's spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, and dozens of other senior Hamas military commanders.

The practice set off a continuous wave of criticism from rights groups and foreign governments, particularly the strike that killed Shehadeh — a one-ton bomb that killed 14 other people, most of them children.

(Reporting for Reuters in Jerusalem by Dan Williams, in Cairo by Ayman Samir, Ali Abdelatti and Yasmine Saleh, writing by Yasmine Saleh)