Israeli troops gather near the border with the Gaza Strip. The country is… (Oliver Weiken / European…)
GAZA CITY — The bombardment seemed nearly constant: more than 250 airstrikes that blew out windows, peppered buildings with shrapnel and rattled nerves. But Gaza Strip residents said Israel's targets appeared chosen primarily to send a message.
Israeli forces and the Islamist movement Hamas exchanged fire Friday for a third day, and appeared to inch closer to all-out conflict. A visit by Egypt's prime minister failed to bring even a temporary lull in the fighting. And Palestinian militants continued to press Israel's limits, for the first time firing two homemade rockets in the direction of Jerusalem.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Security Cabinet approved a "considerable intensification of the operation" Friday night, including expanding the call-up of Israeli reservists to 75,000, according to a government official. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon said a ground invasion of Gaza could be launched in a matter of days if rocket attacks on Israel didn't stop.
PHOTOS: Israel-Gaza violence escalates
But as Israel considers its next move, it faces an array of unpalatable choices. So far the campaign has been carried out methodically with strikes against Hamas leaders and weapons depots, avoiding the kind of operations that might incur heavy casualties.
Previous ground offensives have had mixed results, and a new one would result in more Israeli casualties, something that could hurt Netanyahu as he seeks reelection in January. An effort to remove Hamas from power in Gaza presents Israel with the unpopular prospect of reoccupying the Palestinian territory, or seeing a group more radical than Hamas take over.
Gaza residents said much of the bombardment early Friday appeared intended to intimidate Hamas and frighten the public so that a ground assault wouldn't be necessary. The strikes hit empty lots, vacant building or the remains of structures that had already been destroyed.
"It was designed to terrorize us, and it worked," construction worker Riad Abu Lanzain, 38, said as he layered fresh concrete over his stoop, which was damaged by shrapnel from an airstrike Friday morning. The missile hit an empty lot across the street in his residential neighborhood, leaving a gaping hole in the sand and blowing out windows in most of the nearby apartment buildings.
No one was hurt, but half a dozen families rushed into a ground-level room and stayed there the rest of the night.
"For the sake of the children, we just want all of this to stop," said Abu Lanzain, a father of five.
For the family of engineering student Amir Osama Maqousy, 18, the turning point came at 6:30 a.m., when the windows of his Gaza City house were blown in by a blast next door. Israeli airstrikes hit a squad of militants who were launching rockets into Israel, he said.
Less than three hours later, Maqousy, his four siblings, their mother, aunt and grandmother were waiting anxiously by their car at the Rafah border crossing into Egypt with suitcases. They plan to stay in Cairo until the situation in Gaza settles down.
Israel's 22-day incursion into Gaza four years ago killed 1,200 Palestinians, including hundreds in the first few days. As of Friday evening, Gaza hospital officials said, 23 people had died, including 11 civilians. Three Israelis were killed Thursday by a rocket fired from Gaza.
After a brief overnight respite, militants fired more than 70 rockets toward Israel on Friday, Israeli officials said. At least three people were injured.
By far the most dramatic target was a city both sides claim as their capital. Air raid sirens in Jerusalem rang for the first time since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The crowded ancient city had long been thought to be off-limits, since it includes many Arab residents and some of the world's most sacred sites to Muslims as well as Jews.
Hamas' military wing claimed responsibility for firing what it said were homemade mid-range rockets. Israeli news reports said the rockets had landed in open areas near Gush Etzion, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank about 10 miles south of Jerusalem. No damage or injuries were reported.
"It is a bit of a surprise," said Yitzhak Reiter, professor of Middle East studies at Ashkelon Academic College. "We always thought Jerusalem was the safest place because they wouldn't dare target the holy city."
Militants also tried again, and failed, to inflict damage in Tel Aviv.
With the escalation in violence and apparent disinterest on either side in a cease-fire, chances of an Israeli ground assault seemed to rise, even if no one wants it.
Anyone hoping that Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil's visit might reduce the tension was quickly disappointed.
In his two-hour trip, Kandil made no public mention of a truce or ending the fighting. Instead he said Egypt's loyalty rested squarely with the Gazan people.
"The cause of Palestinians is the cause of all Arabs and Muslims, he said during a visit to Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. "Palestinians are heroes."