Israel, Hamas intensify fierce fighting with no end in sight
JERUSALEM (AP) – Israel stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, razing a high-rise building used by the militant Hamas group and killing at least three militants in their hiding places on Tuesday as Palestinian rockets fell almost continuously on some parts of Israel.
It was the toughest fight between bitter enemies since 2014, and it showed no signs of slowing down.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to expand the offensive, as militants in Gaza unleashed a heavy rocket barrage late at night that set off air raid sirens and explosions throughout the densely populated metropolitan area from Tel Aviv.
Immediately after sunrise on Wednesday, Israel launched dozens of airstrikes within minutes, targeting police and security facilities, witnesses said. A wall of dark gray smoke rose above Gaza City. Iyad al-Bozum, a spokesman for the Hamas-led Interior Ministry, said the airstrikes destroyed the police headquarters in Gaza City, a compound with several buildings.
Five Israelis, including three women and a child, were killed by rocket fire on Tuesday and early Wednesday, and dozens of people were injured. The death toll in Gaza has risen to 35 Palestinians, including 10 children, according to the health ministry. More than 200 people were injured.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli troops who entered al-Fawar refugee camp in southern Hebron, the ministry said.
In another sign of growing unrest, protests erupted in Arab communities across Israel, where protesters torched dozens of vehicles during clashes with police.
The fighting between Israel and Hamas has been the most intense since a 50-day war in the summer of 2014. In just over 24 hours, the current wave of violence, sparked by religious tensions in the disputed city of Jerusalem, looked more and more like this devastating war. .
Explosions from Israeli airstrikes and the whistling of outgoing rockets could be heard in Gaza throughout the day, and large plumes of smoke from targeted buildings rose into the air. Israel resumed a policy of airstrikes aimed at killing wanted militants and began demolishing entire buildings – a tactic that drew heavy international criticism in 2014.
In Israel, the non-stop barrages of rocket fire left long trails of white smoke in their wake, as explosions of anti-rocket interceptors exploded overhead. Air raid sirens roared throughout the day, sending panicked residents scurrying for cover.
In a nationally televised speech, Netanyahu said Hamas and the smaller militant Islamic Jihad groups “have paid, and I tell you here, will pay a heavy price for their aggression.”
He claimed that Israel had killed dozens of militants and inflicted heavy damage on hundreds of targets.
“This campaign will take time,” he said. “With determination, unity and strength, we will restore the security of the citizens of Israel.”
He stood alongside Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival, in a show of unity. “There are a lot of goals aligned. This is just the start, ”Gantz said. The army said it was activating some 5,000 reservists and sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border.
The current violence has coincided with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious sentiment.
Critics say harsh Israeli police measures in and around Jerusalem’s Old City have helped fuel the nighttime unrest. Another critical point has been the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where dozens of Palestinians are threatened with eviction by Jewish settlers.
Clashes erupted last weekend in the grounds of Al-Aqsa Mosque, which is Islam’s third holiest site and Judaism’s holiest site. For four days, Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians in the compound who threw stones and chairs at the forces. At times, police fired stun grenades at the carpeted mosque.
On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza. From there the escalation was rapid.
In a televised speech, exiled Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Israel was responsible. “It was the Israeli occupation that set Jerusalem on fire and the flames reached Gaza,” he said.
Palestinian health officials gave no breakdown of death toll in Gaza, but Islamic Jihad confirmed three senior commanders were killed in a strike on their hiding place in an apartment building in the city of Gaza. The health ministry said 10 children and a woman were also killed.
Netanyahu said Israel attacked hundreds of targets. The fiercest attack was a series of airstrikes that destroyed an entire 12-story building. The building housed major Hamas offices, as well as a gym and start-up businesses. Israel fired a series of warning shots before demolishing the building, allowing people to flee and there were no casualties.
Israeli planes severely damaged another building in Gaza City early Wednesday. The nine-story structure housed residential apartments, medical businesses and a dental clinic. A drone fired five warning rockets before the bombardment. Israel said the building housed Hamas intelligence offices and the command of the group responsible for planning attacks on Israeli targets in the occupied West Bank.
Fighter jets struck the building again after journalists and rescuers gathered. There was no word on the victims. The skyscraper was 200 meters (650 feet) from the Associated Press office in Gaza City, and smoke and debris reached the office.
Shortly after the bombing, Hamas announced that it would resume its attacks and targeted 100 rockets at the Israeli desert town of Beer Sheva. Hamas said the new roadblock was in response to the strike on the building. The latest rocket attack on Wednesday morning killed a man and his seven-year-old daughter in the central town of Lod, according to Israeli public radio Kan.
The IDF said hundreds of rockets were launched at Israel. Two women, including an Indian caregiver, were killed in separate rocket attacks in the southern town of Ashkelon.
Then, late at night, Hamas said it set off a barrage of 130 rockets towards Tel Aviv in response to the destruction of the skyscraper. As rockets rose in the sky, mosques in Gaza rang with chants of “God is great”, “victory of Islam” and “resistance”.
A rocket killed a woman in the town of Rishon LeZion and another hit a bus in the nearby town of Holon, injuring three people, including a young girl.
Violence was beginning to spread over Israel’s own Arab population.
In Lod, thousands of mourners joined the funeral of an Arab man killed by a suspected Jewish gunman the night before. The crowd clashed with police and torched a synagogue and around 30 vehicles, including a police car, Israeli media reported. Paramedics said a 56-year-old man was seriously injured after his car was pelted with stones.
The city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, called the situation in the mixed Jewish-Arab city a “civil war” and the government ordered the deployment of paramilitary West Bank border guards to Lod.
In neighboring Ramle, ultra-nationalist Jewish demonstrators were filmed attacking cars belonging to Arabs. In the northern port city of Acre, protesters torched a Jewish-owned restaurant and hotel. Police arrested dozens more during Arab protests in other cities.
Diplomats sought to intervene, with Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations working to establish a ceasefire. All three serve as mediators between Israel and Hamas.
The UN Security Council is scheduled to hold its second emergency closed-door meeting on Wednesday in three days over the escalating violence, a sign of growing international concern. Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because the talks were private, said the most powerful UN body had not issued a statement due to US fears that this could exacerbate the tensions.
The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.
Netanyahu has served as interim prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. After failing to form a coalition government by a deadline last week, his political rivals now have the option.
Support from an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is essential for the anti-Netanyahu bloc. But current tensions could deter party leader Mansour Abbas from joining a coalition with Jewish parties, at least for now.
The parties still have three weeks to reach an agreement. If they fail, Israel would likely begin an unprecedented fifth election campaign in just over two years.
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associate Press Editor Ilan Ben Zion also contributed to this report.