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Gaza violence spirals as UN warns of regional threat

Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza relentlessly on Thursday, causing a growing number of civilian casualties, as the UN Security Council was to meet urgently over Israel's spiralling confrontation with Hamas.

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Israeli warplanes pounded Gaza relentlessly on Thursday, causing a growing number of civilian casualties, as the UN Security Council was to meet urgently over Israel's spiralling confrontation with Hamas.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas has accused Israel of committing "genocide" in Gaza, but Israel showed no sign of letting up, with five children among 22 Palestinians killed in air strikes carried out since midnight (2100 GMT).

And Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed even tougher action against Hamas, despite growing international calls for a ceasefire in the worst confrontation in and around Gaza since 2012.

So far, there have been no Israel deaths but Hamas has kept up a steady barrage of rocket fire on cities in central Israel, sending people fleeing for cover as air raid sirens rang out in cities as far away as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and even Haifa.

The violence has emptied the streets from Gaza City to Tel Aviv, as both Israelis and Palestinians take shelter indoors for fear of being caught in the open when the next rocket or missile hits.

On the beachfront in Tel Aviv, cafes which would normally have been bursting at the seams at the height of tourist season sat empty as waiters nervously check the phones for any news of an incoming missile.

But in cafes in Gaza, the story was much darker after an Israeli missile slammed into a coffee shop in Khan Yunis, killing eight as they watched a World Cup semi-final match. Another 15 people were injured.

And Israel has confirmed preparations are under way for a possible ground attack, with tanks seen massing along the border and Netanyahu facing mounting pressure from hardliners within his coalition to put boots back on the ground in the territory from which Israel pulled all troops and settlers in 2005.

"If the fire continues, we do not rule out a ground incursion," President Shimon Peres told CNN on Wednesday, warning it could happen "quite soon".

"Gaza is on a knife edge. The deteriorating situation is leading to a downward spiral which could quickly get beyond anyone's control," UN chief Ban Ki-moon warned ahead of an emergency meeting of the Security Council at 1400 GMT.

"The risk of violence expanding further still is real. Gaza, and the region as a whole, cannot afford another full-blown war," he said.

Ban spoke with Netanyahu, urging him to exercise maximum restraint, although he described the Gaza rocket attacks as "unacceptable and must stop".

He also spoke with Abbas, Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and US Secretary of State John Kerry over the crisis, which drawn calls for restraint from Washington and the European Union.

As the number of victims in Gaza rose to 73, Egypt opened the Rafah border crossing, with hospitals in north Sinai placed on standby to receive the wounded, Egypt's official MENA news agency reported.

Five children and four women were among 22 people killed in Israeli air strikes on Thursday, medics said, with most of the bloodshed in Khan Yunis.

The deaths bring to 73 the overall number of Gazans killed since Israel launched Operation Protective Edge early on Tuesday to halt cross-border rocket fire.

One missile attack on Khan Yunis struck two homes, killing four women and four children, while another air strike killed a five-year-old boy in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya, emergency services spokesman Ashraf al-Qudra told AFP.

The Israeli military said it had hit more than 300 targets overnight, raising the total number of strikes in just over 48 hours to 750, in Israel's largest military operation in Gaza since November 2012.

The air offensive has so far failed to staunch the rocket fire, with 82 rockets hitting Israel on Wednesday and another 21 intercepted. Fifteen more struck Israeli territory on Thursday morning, with seven more intercepted by Iron Dome.

So far, neither side has shown any sign of backing down, as Israel approved the call-up of 40,000 reservists as it stepped up its preparations for a possible ground assault.

Analysts said Hamas and its backers had a clear aim for their military build-up: to drag Israel into a ground war hoping to inflict a heavy number of casualties.

Israeli forces entering Gaza would face likely attack by Hamas anti-tank weapons, including Kornet missiles used by Hezbollah in the 2006 Lebanon war, and improvised explosive devices, they said.

There would also be a possibility of capturing Israeli soldiers for prisoner swaps.

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