Israel launches air strikes on Gaza, more than 220 dead

Updated Saturday, December 27th 2008, 10:10 PM

Khatib/Getty

Smoke billows over the southern town of Rafah in the Gaza Strip Saturday, following Israeli airstrikes.

The fragile Gaza Strip peace disintegrated beneath waves of Israeli warplanes Saturday as a relentless air attack killed 225 people and drew vows of blood-soaked vengeance from Hamas.

More than 700 people were injured in the unprecedented and devastating air strikes that began without warning just before noon. Israeli officials warned the hours of incessant bombing were just the beginning of its retaliatory strikes against Hamas.

"It won't be easy, and it won't be short," said Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. "There is a time for calm, and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight."

Hamas echoed the violent sentiment while still reeling from the "Massacre of the Black Saturday," as the carnage was quickly dubbed by Palestinians in Gaza.

Abu Ubaida, spokesman for the armed wing of Hamas, promised his group will "teach the enemy a lesson they will never forget."

It was the bloodiest day for the Palestinians in more than two decades of unrest in the region, with Gaza residents still bracing for the worst. Reports indicated Israel was considering an expanded campaign with ground forces.

"It is a war," said Umm Mohammed, a Gaza City resident looking at a demolished Hamas office. "Look at the smoke; look at the bodies and the body parts. It is like Afghanistan or Iraq."

The attacks, more than 100 in all, sent black smoke billowing into the skies and created panic on the streets.

More than 100 tons of bombs fell upon 40 targets, including the presidential compound, a police headquarters hosting a graduation ceremony and the central prison.

Fatima Salem, 53, was left unconscious after being hit by flying debris near the prison. Her son, Majed, kept a grim vigil at Gaza's overburdened Shifa Hospital.

"This is the face of terror," he said. "My mother being torn apart while at work ... My mother was not firing rockets against Israel."

The bloodshed was widespread and gruesome, with stunned rescue workers struggling to handle the influx of disfigured victims arriving in vans, cars and ambulances.

Blood was spattered and body parts scattered in the hallways at Shifa, the main medical facility in Gaza City.

"There are heads without bodies," said nurse Ahmed Abdel Salaam. "People are weeping; women are crying; doctors are shouting."

Mosques were converted into temporary morgues, while hospital workers - using emergency generators - rigged 10 additional intensive care units for victims.

The attack came just eight days after a six-month truce between Hamas and Israel expired. An increase in mortar and rocket attacks on Israel since the truce ended led to Saturday's assault.

Hamas responded to Saturday's onslaught by launching several Grad rockets into Israel, killing one and wounding six others.

Gaza's most senior police commander, along with scores of officers gathered for a pair of Hamas graduation ceremonies, was killed in the attacks. Two other senior Hamas officials were also slain.

Secretary of State Rice condemned Hamas for its mortar and rocket attacks against Israel and held the group responsible for breaking the ceasefire.

"The ceasefire should be restored immediately. The United States calls on all concerned to address the urgent humanitarian needs of the innocent people of Gaza," she said.

Although some of the Israeli bombs struck in busy neighborhoods as children were leaving school, most of the victims were Hamas security men.

Juma Al-Affish said his brother, a police officer, was barely recognizable after surviving a bomb strike at a small police station.

But the 58-year-old Gaza resident said he was opposed to any acts of revenge by Hamas.

"No," he said. "We do need peace."

lmcshane@nydailynews.com

With News Wire Services

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