(Khalil Hamra ~ Associated Press)
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- The Israeli army stepped up a broad offensive in the Gaza Strip on Thursday, killing at least nine Palestinians with airstrikes and shelling attacks after militants fired a rocket that struck deep into Israel.
Palestinians accused Israel of poisoning the atmosphere ahead of President Bush's visit to the region next week.
In strikes all over Gaza, Israeli aircraft and tanks hit buildings the Israelis said were used by militants. In one clash, Israel shelled a house in the southern city of Khan Younis, killing a militant along with his mother, sister and brother. Israeli army spokeswoman Capt. Noa Meir said militants were "intentionally using civilian areas" to fire at troops and blamed them for the deaths.
After the shelling, the three-story house leaned to one side, barely standing, as an Israeli bulldozer leveled land nearby.
In another strike, a 14-year-old boy was critically wounded. His limp body, a mangled foot dangling, was rushed into a hospital emergency room.
Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the army offensive, which followed the firing of a Katyusha rocket into Israel.
Katyushas can hit targets up to 19 miles away, about twice the range of the thousands of the homemade projectiles that Gaza militants have fired at Israel in recent years.
The Katyusha fired Thursday exploded in the northern part of Ashkelon, about 11 miles from Gaza -- the longest reach yet of a Palestinian rocket. No one was hurt, but Israel considered it an escalation and its response reflected that.
"The Palestinians have attacked a major Israeli city ... and thus have upped the ante," said government spokesman David Baker. "Israel will not allow any cities to be attacked by Palestinian rocket fire."
For weeks the Israelis have been conducting pinpoint strikes at suspected Gaza militants involved in rocket fire. On Thursday they reverted to the tactic of hitting buildings, putting civilians in the line of fire.
"We consider what's going on in Gaza ... as a bloody Israeli message in which Israel shirks itself of any commitment before the arrival of President Bush to the region," Abu Rdeneh said. He did not mention the Katyusha rocket.
In published comments Thursday, Bush said he would not let a future Palestinian state become a base for attacks on Israel.
"I won't lend a hand to the establishment of a terror state on the borders of Israel," Bush told the Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot, which said the full interview would be published today. Bush is due to arrive Wednesday.
Fuel supply reduction
Israel's Supreme Court, meanwhile, upheld reductions of fuel supplies from Israel to Gaza, rejecting claims by rights groups that the cutbacks are causing a humanitarian crisis. The reductions are part of Israel's campaign against Gaza militants and the Hamas government there.
Palestinian militants pelt southern Israel with crude rockets every day, causing little damage or casualties while badly disrupting life in towns around Gaza.
During the Israel-Hezbollah war in Lebanon in summer 2006, Hezbollah guerrillas pelted northern Israel with almost 4,000 Katyusha rockets, killing dozens of people, wounding hundreds and causing widespread damage that showed how the unguided, relatively simple rockets can cause havoc.
Islamic Jihad and the Popular Resistance Committees claimed responsibility for Thursday's Katyusha attack. "We are going to launch more strikes in the depth of the entity [Israel]," they said in a joint statement. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a tiny group backed by Hamas, also claimed responsibility.
Ashkelon Mayor Roni Mehatzri called for an Israeli invasion of Gaza to stop the attacks, now that his city of 120,000 is in range. "It's just madness, just madness," he told Channel 10 TV. "Israel should have acted in Gaza a long time ago."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has warned an Israeli invasion of Gaza is nearing, but previous large-scale ground operations have failed to halt the rocket fire while causing heavy casualties and damage and usually sparking an international outcry against Israel.
Yossi Peled, a retired army general, said putting Israeli cities in rocket range may require Israel to hit back hard, despite the inevitable criticism. "The government of Israel will have to take some very tough decisions," Peled told Israel TV.
Admitting it does not have an answer to the rocket barrages, Israel commissioned a high-tech project called "Iron Dome" that features radar and projectiles to shoot down the rockets, but it is several years away from deployment.
Instead, Israel wants to limit the inflow of weapons to Gaza, charging that tons of arms and explosives, including Katyushas, have been smuggled through tunnels from Egypt, and Egypt has not done enough to stop the flow -- angering the Egyptians.
On Wednesday Israel protested hotly after Egypt allowed more than 2,000 Palestinian pilgrims returning from Mecca to enter Gaza without Israeli checks. They included Hamas leaders who were said to be carrying large amounts of cash to circumvent an international boycott of their Islamic extremist Gaza government.
Among the dead Thursday was an activist from Abbas' Fatah, who was among those who returned a day earlier. He was arrested by Hamas and was killed in an airstrike on the prison where he was being held. Fatah officials accused Hamas of leaving him there as a target after they abandoned the location.