Deaths Mount as Israel and Hamas Exchange Violence for Second Straight Day

Operation Pillar of Defense (or Pillar of Cloud if you're Israeli), the worst conflict between Israel and Gaza since 2008, escalated overnight as the IDF continued to strike dozens of targets inside the Strip, resulting in dozens of rockets being fired by Palestinian militants at Israeli towns and villages.

Despite Israel's "Iron Dome" defense system successfully intercepting the vast majority of rockets being fired from Gaza, three Israelis were killed when an apartment building in the city of Kiryat Malaci sustained a direct rocket hit. Five others, including three children were also injured in the same incident.

On the Palestinian side, as many as 15 have been killed since fighting began, including the 11-month-old baby of BBC Arabic employee Jihad Misharawi. At least 120 other have been injured.

Israel insists it is trying its best to avoid civilian casualties, but says some areas being targeted are "unfortunately" adjacent to kindergartens and mosques. Leaflets were dropped by IAF planes into Gaza warning residents to keep away from Hamas operatives, but, as The Atlantic Wire points out, it's easier said than done in one of the world's most densely populated territories.

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon released a statement calling for an "immediate de-escalation of tensions," but a UN Security Council emergency meeting ended without a resolution.

Egypt, which recalled its ambassador to Israel, has asked to United States to intervene, fearing the conflict could "escalate out of control." Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi expressed concern over regional instability while reiterating its support for the people of Gaza and calling on Israel to stop its "unacceptable aggression."

President Obama, meanwhile, spoke on the phone with Israel's prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and expressed support for "Israel's right to self-defense in light of countless rocket attacks on Israeli civilians being launched from Gaza." According to UN ambassador Susan Rice, Obama "urged" Netanyahu to "make every effort to avoid civilian casualties."

Despite the seemingly unbounded bleakness of the situation and the looming possibility of a ground assault, at least one report claims Israel had reached out to Hamas through European mediators in an effort to work out a truce.

[photo via AP]