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Region on the precipice: Israel, Gaza slide closer to war neither side wants

Three Israelis were killed when their apartment building was struck by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, an attack that intensified tensions between Israel and Palestinian militants. The incident came after Hamas' top military commander and others were killed in a series of airstrikes by the Jewish state. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.

News analysis

TEL AVIV, Israel - Israel has called up army reserves, the standing army is poised for a ground invasion of Gaza, the air force and navy are attacking a list of specified targets, mostly Hamas fighters and weapons facilities. All is set for war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

The only sure thing, in this fog of war, is that nobody actually wants the war to take place -- not Israel, not Hamas.

It is a tightrope of the most dangerous kind.

Israel: Three civilians killed by rockets fired from Gaza as violence escalates

Israel is resolved to end the Palestinian rocket attacks on its southern cities and communities -- 100 rockets fired in the five days before Israel's response and, at the time of writing, 150 since.

Israel's surprise attack Wednesday killed the man who has been on top of Israel's hit list for a decade, Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari, accused of being responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis, as well as taking part in the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier who was held hostage in Gaza for five years.

Nir Elias / Reuters

Two sides exchange deadly airstrikes, rocket attacks.

But just as significant, according to the Israeli military, its precision air attacks destroyed most of Hamas' stockpile of long-range Fajr rockets, whose 47-mile range threatens cities in central Israel, including the country's largest, Tel Aviv.

Not only would that end the threat, but it would end the threat of unplanned escalation. For if Tel Aviv suffered casualties from rocket attacks, the government would have no choice but to order the ground invasion of Gaza. 

To illustrate the precipice on which the region now stands, Hamas said it had fired a 1.1 ton, Iranian-made Fajr rocket at Tel Aviv, but there was no reported impact in the Israeli city and the claim appeared to be unfounded. 

A Fajr rocket would likely kill and injure many if it exploded in an unprepared city. 

Israeli leaders indicate that a new offensive against Islamic militant commanders is underway. NBC's Martin Fletcher reports.

PhotoBlog: Deadly day along Israeli-Gaza border

Israel's southern cities, subject for years to Palestinian rocket attacks, are well prepared. There was no school for children within 25 miles of Gaza, which is the range of the smaller Fajr 3 rocket, and residents were told to stay within a hundred yards of a bomb shelter as air sirens sounded every few minutes.

The three Israelis killed when a rocket hit their apartment building in Kiryat Malachi were standing by the window, looking out, instead of following instructions and staying in a safer place.

In their building, an older one, there was no bomb shelter. The advice, which they ignored, was to shelter in the more solidly constructed central stairwell.

Suhaib Salem / Reuters

A man sits inside a damaged house after Israeli air strikes in Gaza City on Thursday. Israel exchanged the fiercest fire with Hamas in years after assassinating the Islamist militant group's military mastermind and threatening a wider offensive in the Gaza Strip to stem Palestinian rocket salvos.

Israel kills Hamas military chief, officials say

Israeli war planes and navy ships continued to pound Hamas targets in Gaza Thursday, while warning that a wider operation could ensue. Hamas is returning fire -- while the United Nations has appealed for an end to the violence.

So far, that appeal is being ignored as each side here tries to gain the advantage.

But how they define that advantage could lead them over the edge into the wider war neither side wants. 

Martin Fletcher is the author of "The List", "Breaking News" and "Walking Israel".

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