Dozens dead as Israel and Hamas escalate aerial bombardments

·7-min read
Israeli-Palestinian violence flares up

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Farrell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Tuesday, raising the death toll in two days to 32 Palestinians and three people in Israel, with Israel carrying out multiple air strikes in Gaza and the militant group firing rockets at Tel Aviv.

A 13-story residential building in Gaza collapsed after it was hit by an Israeli air strike, one of hundreds that Israel said it had carried out against Hamas targets.

They were the most intensive aerial exchanges between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in Gaza, and prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.

U.N. Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland tweeted: "Stop the fire immediately. We're escalating towards a full scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation.

"The cost of war in Gaza is devastating & is being paid by ordinary people. UN is working w/ all sides to restore calm. Stop the violence now," he wrote.

Into the early hours of Wednesday morning, Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with Israeli attacks, outgoing rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Israeli air defence missiles intercepting them.

Israelis ran for shelters or flattened themselves on pavements in communities more than 70 km (45 miles) up the coast amid sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.

In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens were heard around the city. 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.

'A VERY HEAVY PRICE'

There appeared no imminent end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that militants would pay a “very heavy” price for the rockets, which reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating its capture of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.

"We are at the height of a weighty campaign," Netanyahu said in televised remarks.

"Hamas and Islamic Jihad paid ... and will pay a very heavy price for their belligerence."

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 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."

The White House said on Tuesday that Israel had 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 coexistence.

The United States was delaying U.N. 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 U.S. strategy.State Department spokesman Ned Price urged calm and "restraint on both sides", saying: "The loss of life, the loss of Israeli life, the loss of Palestinian life, It's something that we deeply regret."

He added: "We are urging this message of de-escalation to see this loss of life come to an end."

PLUMES OF BLACK SMOKE

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 2,100 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 by Israeli forces.

Video footage on Tuesday showed three plumes of thick, black smoke rising from the 13-story Gaza block as it toppled over. Nobody was reported killed in the building.

The Israeli military said the demolished multi-story building, in Gaza City's Rimal neighbourhood, housed "multiple" Hamas offices, including ones for military research and development and military intelligence.

The existence of one Hamas office in the building, used by political leaders and officials dealing with the news media, was widely known locally.

Civilian residents in the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area before the air strike, according to witnesses and the Israeli military. The air strike completely destroyed the building.

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

Israeli political leaders and the military said they had killed "dozens" of militants, and hit buildings used by Hamas.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel had carried out "hundreds" or strikes, and that "buildings will continue to crumble."

Gaza's health ministry said that of the 30 reported dead, 10 were children and one was a woman.

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 Ashkelon.

JERUSALEM TENSIONS

Clashes at Al-Aqsa on Monday morning were the immediate backdrop to the escalation. More than 300 Palestinians were injured in confrontations with Israeli police, the Palestine Red Crescent Society said. Police said 21 officers were hurt.

Jerusalem's Old City, with places sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, is the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, a status not generally recognised internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem - captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war - as the capital of a future state.

The tensions there have led to an increase in pro-Palestinian protests among Israel’s 21% Arab minority, who are Israeli by citizenship but Palestinian by heritage and culture.

In the ethnically mixed Israeli town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, witnesses quoted by Israeli media said one or two armed Jews shot at rioting Arabs, killing one and wounding two. The dead man's father told the Walla news site he had been ambushed while on a family visit.

The accounts could not be confirmed. Israeli police said they had arrested two suspects in the incident.

Netanyahu's office agreed to a "declaration of a special state of emergency in Lod." Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana said on Twitter that 16 border police companies would be reassigned to Lod immediately from the occupied West Bank.

Lod Mayor Yair Revivo told Israeli Channel 12 News: "We have lost control of the city and the streets."In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian and injured another on Tuesday after they shot towards Israeli troops near Nablus, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

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.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Giles Elgood and Howard Goller)