Israelis take cover in a concrete pipe used as a bomb shelter in Kiryat Malachi.… (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images )
GAZA CITY — The rapidly escalating conflict between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip was defined on its second day by images of its most helpless victims.
In Israel, a bloodied infant in a pink jumpsuit was gingerly rescued from the rubble of an apartment building where three other residents were killed by a rocket fired from Gaza. The three deaths in Kiryat Malachi were the first on the Israeli side.
At about the same time, bereaved young parents to the south in Gaza City buried their cheerful 11-month-old boy, who had just learned to say "Mama."
The boy, Omar Misharawi, was killed Wednesday in an Israeli attack. The explosion tore through the family's home, killing him and his pregnant aunt as the family dived for cover.
"He was just a few steps behind," said his stunned mother, Ahlam Misharawi, 24. "He was right behind me."
The conflict appeared to be turning into what neither Israel nor Hamas wanted: a major confrontation. The death toll rose on both sides and Gaza militants for the first time aimed rockets at Tel Aviv.
As the United Nations, U.S. and Egypt scrambled to negotiate a cease-fire, Israel said it was dispatching troops to the Gaza border for a possible ground invasion. Hamas continued to shower southern Israel with rockets, totaling nearly 300 since Wednesday.
But it was the stories and widely circulated images of bloodied babies that seemed to grip the public on both sides, strengthening their resolve to continue the confrontation. The widening level of violence appeared to put the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas' military wing on the path to another bitter confrontation similar to one they had four years ago.
That clash proved traumatic for both sides, killing more than 1,200 Palestinians in 22 days and triggering a U.N. inquiry that accused Israel of war crimes and intentionally targeting civilians.
Hopes for a quick resolution seemed to evaporate Thursday night after militants crossed a long-standing Israeli red line by using recently acquired long-range rockets to fire at the heavily populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area and the nearby city of Rishon Lezion, about 40 miles north of Gaza.
The rockets caused no damage but spurred panic in Tel Aviv, which has previously been out of reach of Hamas militants and had not been hit with rockets since it was targeted by Saddam Hussein in 1991.
Earlier in the day, Israeli military officials had expressed confidence that airstrikes over the previous 24 hours had wiped out Hamas' long-range-rocket supply, denying it the ability to reach Tel Aviv, the heart of Israel's economy.
Throughout the day, Israeli airstrikes continued to pound dozens of targets in Gaza. Palestinian officials said seven people were killed, including four militants and three civilians, Palestinian officials said.
Thursday's attacks brought the death toll in Gaza to 15. More than 125 people have been wounded, hospital officials said.
That's far less than four years ago, when more than 200 Palestinians were killed during the first day of the offensive, in December 2008.
Analysts say Israel appears to have learned the lessons of that conflict by working harder to limit civilian casualties, at least for now.
"While this is not a new principle, it was undoubtedly sharpened by the [U.N.'s] Goldstone report as well as the general international attitude toward Israel," said Anat Kurz, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Hamas leaders said they had no intention of backing down.
"Israel started this war, but they won't decide when it ends," said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum, one of the few Hamas leaders who dared to emerge from hiding Thursday amid concern that Israel might target them.
"We are in a real war and it will reshape the Palestinian-Israel conflict," he said.
Tension had been mounting for days, since a rocket attack on an Israeli jeep along the Gaza border injured four soldiers. In the ensuing back-and-forth violence, Hamas and other militant groups fired rockets and mortar rounds into southern Israel.
The three Israelis killed Thursday were residents of adjacent apartments on the fourth floor of a building in Kiryat Malachi. Pictures of the infant, who survived, were shown repeatedly on television.
A resident of the building who identified himself only as Yitzhak told Israeli news media that he had been joking with his upstairs neighbor. A few minutes later, the rocket ripped through the wall of the building and killed the neighbor.
"You can't be complacent; you never know when this will hit you," Yitzhak said.
International leaders were working to prevent the conflict from spiraling further out of control.
Egypt asked the U.S. to intervene by calling on Israel to "end this aggression and to stop the recurring killing and bloodshed of Palestinians," Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi said on Egyptian television.