JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, it's All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. A day-long Israeli bombardment of Hamas police and security compounds across the Gaza Strip has left over 200 Palestinians dead and several hundred wounded. Most of those killed were Hamas policemen, including some attending a graduation ceremony. Some Palestinian civilians and children are also among the dead. Later in the day, Hamas fired a barrage of rocket fire into southern Israel, killing one Israeli and wounding four others. It was the single bloodiest day of fighting inside Gaza in years. NPR's Eric Westervelt is on the line from Jerusalem. Eric, these are very, very heavy casualties. Why is the casualty toll so high?
ERIC WESTERVELT: Jacki, two main reasons: Most of these strikes and the casualties were in Gaza City, which is incredibly densely populated. This is a teeming, crowded city where people live on top of each other, literally. Second, Israel struck these security compounds that were packed with policeman at midday on a busy Saturday, the first day of the work week in Gaza. We're told that at two sites, Jacki, where most of these casualties took place, there were police graduation ceremonies just getting under way when the airstrikes hit. And at another station, police were nearing a shift change, we're told. So, these stations were the scene of utter chaos and mayhem afterwards. I mean, overwhelmed ambulance crews rushed to try to get wounded and dying into any car they could find. Local hospitals are already sort of overrun and ill-prepared, because of the ongoing Israeli blockade - were just not ready for such a huge number of casualties. Morgues were overwhelmed and began putting bodies in nearby mosques. Egypt ended up offering to take some of the wounded out of Gaza.
LYDEN: Now, Hamas and other factions have vowed to retaliate. We've already seen more rocket fire. There had been a ceasefire. Is this a start of a larger, sustained military clash between Israel and Hamas?
WESTERVELT: Well, people on both sides are really bracing for that. Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, today said Israel is ready to continue and as necessary, widen any military action against Hamas, including targeting Hamas' political leaders. He also warned of a long fight, saying the operation, in Ehud Barak's words, won't be easy or short, and said Israel would continue until there's calm in southern Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders for their part ordered reprisal attacks using all necessary means, which includes the potential for suicide bomb attacks inside Israel, and Hamas leader Khalid Meshal, who's in exile in Damascus, called for a third intifada, or uprising, against Israel. And already, militants today fired some longer range rockets into the city of Ashkelon, and other rockets fired today killed one Israeli civilian.
LYDEN: What's been the reaction around the world to today's violence?
WESTERVELT: It came pretty quick. I mean, there were angry, spontaneous street demonstrations in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt and in Palestinian cities across the West Bank. And if the fighting escalates, Jacki, we might see more of those protests. There's already one planned for Cairo and Ramallah tomorrow. Also, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blamed Hamas for breaking the ceasefire, and for the rocket fire, and both Rice and Mideast envoy Tony Blair called for a return to a full truce.
LYDEN: Eric, does the Israeli army think that they can finally pound Hamas into submission?
WESTERVELT: Well, they've tried in the past, and it hasn't worked. And when you talk to Israeli political and military sources here, they say today's airstrikes are an effort to damage Hamas infrastructure and show the organization that they will pay a big price if they continue to fire rockets at Israel. Also, political analysts here are saying Israel hopes to hurt Hamas enough to then try to negotiate through a third party a new ceasefire deal and get terms that are more favorable to the Jewish state.
LYDEN: Hmm. NPR's Eric Westervelt in Jerusalem. Thanks very much, Eric.
WESTERVELT: You're welcome.
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