Israeli tanks are ready for ground invasion of Gaza
Deadly attacks lead to surge in support for Hamas
Anxiously scanning the skies for the vapour trails of Hamas rockets flying overhead towards their homes, Israel's tank crews were preparing yesterday for an invasion of Gaza.
Thousands of soldiers and hundreds of tanks and armoured vehicles were at muster points, as speculation mounted that Israel was to launch a ground offensive against the Islamists who control the Gaza Strip.
The Israeli cabinet called up 75,000 reservists yesterday – many soldiers checking their weapons last night were at work in offices and factories on Friday morning.
"Morale is high. We are currently training and preparing for ground possibilities," said Lieutenant Colonel Avital Leibovich of the Israel Defence Forces. "This is isn't like any other operation. This is to defend 3.5 million Israelis who are under rocket attack."
Israel's generals claim that four days of precision bombing in Operation Pillar of Defence have knocked out many rocket sites, with the toll of accidental civilian deaths relatively low, unlike similar operations in the past. Even so, by last night 40 Palestinians had been killed and more than 300 injured.
In Gaza, the thunder of bombs and wail of sirens sounded early, as F-16 jets launched 180 air strikes in just a few hours, killing nine people. Palestinians were preparing for another Israeli incursion, less than four years since the last one in which at least 1,400 died.
"We only have rockets. Israel has F-16s, Apache helicopters, tanks," said one man. "If Israel decides to enter by land, all we will have is God on our side."
He was planning to move his family into the centre of Gaza City to stay with his wife's relatives, hoping they would be a bit safer there. The family was woken in the early hours yesterday by the sound of a bomb falling next to their home and on to the HQ of the Hamas prime minister.
The blast blew in glass from his windows and petrified his young children, although none were injured.
Police stations and the homes of Hamas commanders were also hit. Huge bombs were dropped on open fields which could be used as rocket-launching sites or possible invasion routes for Israel's 63-ton Merkava battle tanks.
The streets of Gaza, usually a chaotic, writhing mass of noisy humanity, were empty. Only a few furtive-looking figures hurried through the streets, glancing up nervously towards the constant whine of circling Israeli drones.
Without air raid sirens, bomb shelters, an open border to escape through or a conventional army to protect them, families could only put their faith in God and hope it would be over quickly.
In public, there was defiance. In private, many people admit to dismay that it was happening again. Some of those with homes near strategic points that might soon become battlefields, or targets for Israeli bombers, admitted to feelings of dread at what could be to come. A few even said they had pleaded with Hamas not to launch rockets from near their homes.
But there were signs yesterday that not all the Palestinian casualties have been the result of Israeli air strikes. The highly publicised death of four-year-old Mohammed Sadallah appeared to have been the result of a misfiring home-made rocket, not a bomb dropped by Israel.
Experts from the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights who visited the site yesterday said they believed that the explosion was caused by a Palestinian rocket.
In the chaos, it is highly unlikely that anyone at the hospital suspected that the death was the result of anything but an air strike.
Israel's new offensive against the Gaza Strip has turned into a political bonanza for the territory's Hamas rulers, while sidelining Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, their Western-backed rival in the West Bank.
Support for Hamas was in sharp contrast to recent months, when the Islamist group seemed to be flailing, riven by internal divisions over the direction of the movement and the refusal of Egypt's new government to lift a Gaza blockade imposed by Israel and the previous regime in Cairo after Hamas seized the territory in 2007.
In the four-day offensive, Israel has used a missile-defence system called 'Iron Dome' to intercept rockets. It says the home-grown system has been a huge success.
As of last night, the military said it had shot down some 240 incoming rockets, more than half the number of projectiles launched into Israel since Wednesday.
An arsenal of high-flying drones constantly hovering above Gaza provides a live picture of movements on the ground.