GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip - The Palestinian civilian death toll mounted Monday as Israeli aircraft struck densely populated areas in the Gaza Strip in its campaign to quell militant rocket fire menacing nearly half of Israel's population.
Overnight, an airstrike leveled two houses belonging to a single family, killing two children and two adults and injuring 42 people, said Gaza heath official Ashraf al-Kidra. Rescue workers were frantically searching for 12 to 15 people under the rubble.
Shortly after, Israeli aircraft bombarded the remains of the former national security compound in Gaza City. Al-Kidra said flying shrapnel killed one child and wounded others living nearby.
A missile strike on a pickup truck killed three members of the radical Islamic Jihad group, said security officials from the Hamas militant group that rules the Gaza Strip. They spoke anonymously as they were not authorized to talk to journalists.
In all, 84 Palestinians, half of them civilians, have been killed in the five-day onslaught and 720 have been wounded. Three Israeli civilians have died from Palestinian rocket fire and dozens have been wounded.
Israel's decision to step up targeted attacks on leaders in Gaza on Sunday marked a new and risky phase of the operation, given the likelihood of civilian casualties in the crowded territory of 1.6 million Palestinians. The rising civilian toll was likely to intensify pressure on Israel to end the fighting. Hundreds of civilian casualties in an Israeli offensive in Gaza four years ago led to fierce international condemnation of Israel.
Israel launched the current offensive Wednesday after months of intensifying rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, which continued despite the strikes. Overnight, the military said, aircraft targeted about 80 militant sites, including underground rocket-launching sites, smuggling tunnels and training bases, as well as command posts and weapons storage facilities located in buildings owned by militant commanders, the military said in a release. Aircraft and gunboats joined forces to attack police headquarters, and rocket squads were struck as they prepared to fire, the release said.
In all, 1,350 targets have been struck since the operation began on Wednesday.
International efforts to wrest a cease-fire from the two sides has picked up steam despite the escalated hostilities. The two sides have put forth widely divergent demands, but the failure to end the fighting could touch off an Israeli ground invasion, for which thousands of soldiers, backed by tanks and armored vehicles, have already been mobilized and dispatched to Gaza's border.
President Barack Obama said he was in touch with players across the region in hopes of halting the fighting. While defending Israel's right to defend itself against the rocket fire, he also warned of the risks the Jewish state would take if it were to expand its air assault into a ground war.
"If we see a further escalation of the situation in Gaza, the likelihood of us getting back on any kind of peace track that leads to a two-state solution is going to be pushed off way into the future," Obama said.