Dozens dead as Israel, Hamas escalate aerial bombardments

Israelis ran for shelters in communities more than 70 km up the coast amid sounds of explosions as Israeli interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.

For Israel, the militants’ targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamist Hamas group, regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States.

The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the compound revered by Jews as Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

These escalated in recent days ahead of a – now postponed – court hearing in a case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

Israel missile defence blocks Palestinian rockets.

Hamas – seeking the opportunity to marginalise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to present itself as the guardians of Palestinians in Jerusalem – said it was up to Israel to make the first move.

The militant group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said in a televised speech that Israel had “ignited fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences.”

Haniyeh said that Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had been in contact urging calm but that Hamas’s message to Israel was: “If they want to escalate, the resistance is ready, if they want to stop, the resistance is ready.”

Jewish nationalist demonstrators looking at a barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward central Israel, in the Israeli town of Ramla. Credit:AP

The White House said on Tuesday that Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem “must be a place of co-existence.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki opened her daily news briefing with a statement about the situation, saying that President Joe Biden’s primary focus was on de-escalation.

She said the United States condemned rocket attacks by Hamas and other groups, including attacks on Jerusalem, and that Biden’s support for “Israel’s security, for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, is fundamental and will never waver.”

“Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith around the world, must be a place of co-existence,” Psaki said.

US officials in recent weeks have spoken candidly with Israeli officials about how evictions of Palestinian families and demolition of their homes “work against our common interests in achieving a solution to the conflict,” Psaki said.

Biden has sought to rebalance US policy toward Israel and the Palestinians after his predecessor, Donald Trump, sided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on all fronts.

A senior administration official said Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently completed an exchange of letters that began when Abbas sent Biden a letter congratulating him on winning the 2020 election. Biden sent a response recently.

“We won’t share details of the letter. This is part of this administration’s ongoing outreach with the Palestinian leadership on a range of issues of mutual interest, including ongoing efforts to de-escalate violence and restore calm,” the official said.

A house is heavily damaged after it was hit by a missile fired from the Gaza Strip.

A house is heavily damaged after it was hit by a missile fired from the Gaza Strip.Credit:AP

Psaki said the United States wants a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a goal that Trump did not aggressively pursue, saying it was the only way to ensure a “just and lasting peace” between them.

“We believe Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, dignity and prosperity,” she said.

The United States was delaying UN Security Council efforts to issue a public statement on escalating tensions because it could be harmful to behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with the US strategy.

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Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said Washington is “actively engaged in diplomacy behind the scenes with all parties to achieve a ceasefire” and was concerned that a council statement might be counterproductive at the moment.

Death tolls

Israel said it had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza, and dispatched infantry and armour to reinforce the tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of the last Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks, in 2014.

More than 2100 Gazans were killed in the seven-week war that followed, according to the Gaza health ministry, along with 73 Israelis, and thousands of homes in Gaza were razed.

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Video footage on Tuesday showed three plumes of thick, black smoke rising from the Gaza block as it toppled over. Electricity in the surrounding area went out.

Residents of the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area around an hour before the air strike, according to witnesses, and there were no reports of casualties two hours after it collapsed.

People in other blocks reported that they received warnings from Israel to evacuate ahead of a possible attack.

In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens and explosions were heard around the city. Pedestrians ran for shelter, and diners streamed out of restaurants while others flattened themselves on pavements as the sirens sounded.

The Israel Airports Authority said it had halted take-offs at Tel Aviv airport “to allow defence of the nation’s skies,” but later resumed them.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, says the US is pushing for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki, says the US is pushing for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians.Credit:Bloomberg

Video broadcast on Israeli Channel 12 television showed interceptor missiles rising above the runways.

The International Committee of the Red Cross urged all sides to step back, and reminded them of the requirement in international law to try to avoid civilian casualties.

“The recent rockets in Israel and air strikes in Gaza represent a dangerous escalation of the tensions and violence witnessed over the past days in Jerusalem, including its Old City,” Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, said in a statement.

Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, and that two women had been killed in rocket strikes on the southern city of Ashkelon.

But the Israeli military said many of the rockets fired from Gaza had fallen short and wounded Palestinians, and that Israel’s Iron Dome air defences had intercepted the bulk of those that made it across the border.

Violence has also ticked up in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian and injured another on Tuesday after they shot towards Israeli troops near the Palestinian city of Nablus, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

Reuters

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Gaza City: A confrontation between Israel and Hamas sparked by weeks of tensions in contested Jerusalem escalated on Tuesday as Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza while militants barraged Israel with hundreds of rockets. The exchange killed a number of militants and civilians in Gaza and at least two Israelis.

The barrage of rockets from the Gaza Strip and airstrikes into the territory continued almost nonstop throughout the day, in what appeared to be some of the most intense fighting between Israel and Hamas since their 2014 war. The fire was so relentless that Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defence system seemed to be overwhelmed. Columns of smoke rose from many places in Gaza.

By late on Tuesday, the violence extended to Tel Aviv, which came under fire from a barrage of rockets launched from the Gaza Strip.

Hamas said it had launched a total of 130 rockets, its most intense strike so far, in response to Israel’s destruction of a high-rise building in Gaza earlier in the evening.

Air raid sirens and explosions were heard around Tel Aviv, and the skies were lit up by the streaks of multiple interceptor missiles launched towards the incoming rockets.

Pedestrians ran for shelter, and diners streamed out of Tel Aviv restaurants while others flattened themselves on pavements as the sirens sounded. One rocket struck a bus in the central city of Holon, just south of Tel Aviv. Medics said three people, including a 5-year-old girl, were wounded and the bus went up in flames.

The Israel Airports Authority said it had halted take-offs at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport “to allow defence of (the) nation’s skies”.

The sound of the outgoing rockets could be heard in Gaza. As the rockets rose into the skies, mosques across Gaza blared with chants of “God is great,” “victory to Islam” and “resistance”.

“We are now carrying out our promise,” Hamas’s armed wing said in a statement. “The Qassam Brigades are launching their biggest rocket strike against Tel Aviv and its suburbs, with 130 rockets, in response to the enemy’s targeting of residential towers.”

Since sundown on Monday, 28 Palestinians – including 10 children and a woman – were killed in Gaza, most by airstrikes, health officials there said. The Israeli military said at least 16 of the dead were militants.

Two women were killed by rockets fired from Gaza that hit their homes in the southern city of Ashkelon – the first Israeli deaths in the current violence. At least 10 other Israelis have been wounded since Monday evening.

After those deaths, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said officials decided to “increase both the strength and rate of the strikes” against militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

Egyptian officials said they were trying to broker a cease-fire, but the cycle of violence was gaining momentum. Even before the two Israeli deaths, the Israeli military said it was sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border, and the defence minister ordered the mobilisation of 5000 reserve soldiers.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, told reporters that Israel was beefing up defensive forces on the border to prevent possible infiltrations and increasing its offensive forces as well, primarily in the air.

He said the objective was to send a “clear message” to Hamas.

The barrage of rockets and airstrikes was preceded by hours of clashes on Monday between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, including dramatic confrontations at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a sacred site to both Jews and Muslims. The current violence, like previous rounds, including the last intifada, or uprising, has been fuelled by conflicting claims over Jerusalem, which is at the emotional core of the long conflict.

In a sign of widening unrest, hundreds of residents of Arab communities across Israel staged overnight demonstrations denouncing the recent actions of Israeli security forces against Palestinians. It was one of the largest protests by Palestinian citizens in Israel in recent years.

In the central Israeli town of Lod, police fired tear gas and stun grenades after mourners threw rocks at officers during the funeral of an Arab man allegedly shot to death by a Jewish resident the night before. Thousands took part in the funeral, and police said the crowd set fire to a patrol car, a bus and a motorcycle. Two police officers were injured.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since the militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Recent rounds of fighting have usually ended after a few days, often helped by mediation by Qatar, Egypt and others.

Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes, including two that targeted high-rise apartment buildings where militants were believed to be hiding.

One strike demolished a 12-story building in Gaza City that housed the offices of top Hamas officials. Israeli drones fired a series of warning shots at the roof to give people time to leave the building before it was destroyed. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

At midday, an airstrike hit a building in central Gaza City, sending terrified residents running into the street, including women and barefoot children. The Islamic Jihad militant group confirmed that the strike killed three of its commanders.

Another strike hit a high-rise as people were conducting dawn prayers, killing a woman, her 19-year-old disabled son and another man, residents said. Health officials confirmed the deaths.

The Gaza Health Ministry said 28 people, including 10 children and the woman, have been killed and 152 wounded. Ashraf al-Kidra, a spokesman for the ministry, said Israel’s “relentless assault” was overwhelming the health care system, which has been struggling with a COVID-19 outbreak.

The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.

Netanyahu has been caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. He failed to form a coalition government with his hard-line and ultra-Orthodox allies, and the task was handed to his political rivals last week.

One of those rivals is Israel’s defence minister, who is overseeing the Gaza campaign. It was not clear whether the political atmosphere was spilling over into military decision-making, though the rival camps have unanimously expressed support for striking Hamas hard.

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