Dozens dead as Israel and Hamas escalate air strikes

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© Reuters. Flames and smoke rise during Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the southern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021. REUTERS / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

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By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller, and Stephen Farrell

GAZA / JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Hospitality between Israel and Hamas escalated Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 32 Palestinians and three people in Israel in two days. Israel carried out several air strikes in Gaza and the militant group fired rockets at Tel Aviv.

A 13-story apartment building in Gaza collapsed after being hit by an Israeli air strike, one of hundreds Israel claims to have carried out against Hamas targets.

They were the most intense air exchange between Israel and Hamas since a war in Gaza in 2014 and sparked international concern that the situation could get out of hand.

United Nations Ambassador for Peace for the Middle East Tor Wennesland tweeted, “Stop the fire now. We are escalating into a war in full. Leaders on all sides must take responsibility for the de-escalation.”

“The cost of the war in Gaza is devastating and is being paid for by ordinary people. The United Nations is working with all sides to restore calm. Stop the violence now,” he wrote.

By the wee hours of Wednesday morning, Gazans reported that their homes were shaking and the sky was lit with Israeli attacks, rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Israeli air defense missiles intercepting them.

Israelis ran to shelters or plateaued on sidewalks in communities more than 70 km offshore amid the sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles shot into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.

In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens could be heard in the city. For Israel, targeting the militants in Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in confronting the Islamist Hamas group, viewed by Israel and the United States as a terrorist organization.

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 the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the site venerated as the Temple Mount by Jews and a Noble Shrine by Muslims.

These escalated in the last few days before a – now postponed – trial on a case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from homes claimed by Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.

“A very heavy price”

There did not seem to be an immediate end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the militants would pay a “very high” price for the missiles that reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating the conquest of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.

“We are at the height of a weighty campaign,” Netanyahu said on TV announcements.

“Hamas and Islamic Jihad have paid … and will pay a very high price for their warfare.”

Hamas, which was seeking the opportunity to marginalize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and present itself as the guardian of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, said it was up to Israel to take the first step.

The leader of the militant group, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel “lit fires in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and spread the flames to Gaza, so it is responsible for the consequences.”

Haniyeh said Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had contacted to request silence, but Hamas’ 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 Tuesday that Israel had a legitimate right to defend itself against missile attacks, but it put pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians and said Jerusalem must be a place of coexistence.

The United States delayed efforts by the UN Security Council to issue a public statement on escalating tensions as doing so could harm behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with US strategy. US 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, we deeply regret it.”

He added: “We are calling for this message of de-escalation so that this loss of life comes to an end.”

Plums of black smoke

Israel said it sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza and deployed infantry and armaments to reinforce the tanks already assembled at the border, bringing back memories of the last Israeli land incursion into Gaza in 2014 to stop rocket attacks.

According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, more than 2,100 Gazans were killed, along with 73 Israelis, and thousands of houses in Gaza were destroyed by Israeli forces in the ensuing seven-week war.

Video footage on Tuesday showed three thick clouds of black smoke rising from the 13-story Gaza block as it toppled over. No one in the building was reported killed.

The Israeli military said the demolished multi-storey building in the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City houses “several” Hamas offices, including military research and development offices and military intelligence agencies.

The existence of a Hamas office in the building, used by political leaders and officials involved in the news media, was well known locally.

According to witnesses and the Israeli military, civilians in and around the block had been warned to evacuate the area before the air strike. The air strike completely destroyed the building.

People in other blocks reported having received warnings from Israel to evacuate before a possible attack.

Israeli political leaders and the military said they killed “dozen” militants and hit buildings used by Hamas.

Defense Secretary Benny Gantz said Israel has carried out “hundreds” or strikes and “buildings will continue to collapse”.

The Gaza Ministry of Health said that of the 30 deaths reported as dead, 10 were children and one was a woman.

Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in Tel Aviv’s Rishon Lezion suburb and two women were killed in rocket attacks on Ashkelon.

JERUSALEM TENSIONS

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

The old city of Jerusalem, with places sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, is the most sensitive place in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, a status that is not universally recognized internationally. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem – conquered by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war – to be the capital of a future state.

The tension there has led to an increase in pro-Palestinian protests among the 21% Arab minority of Israel, who are Israeli by citizenship and Palestinian by heritage and culture.

In the ethnically mixed Israeli town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, witnesses quoted by the Israeli media said one or two armed Jews shot Arabs, killed one and wounded two. The dead man’s father told the Walla news site that he was attacked while visiting family.

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

Netanyahu’s office approved a “declaration of a special state of emergency in Lod”. Homeland Security Minister Amir Ohana said on Twitter that 16 border police companies would be immediately transferred to Lod from the occupied West Bank.

Lod Mayor Yair Revivo told Israeli Channel 12: “We have lost control of the city and the streets.” In the West Bank, Israeli forces shot and killed one Palestinian and injured another on Tuesday after responding to Israeli troops Palestinian officials said they had shot near Nablus, Israel and Israel.

The International Committee of the Red Cross called on all sides to resign and reminded them of the obligation under international law to avoid civilian casualties.

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