Escalating violence bears hallmarks of Gaza war

Gaza City: Samah Haboub, a mother of four in Gaza, said she was thrown across her bedroom in a “moment of horror” by an air strike on an apartment tower next door.

She and her children, aged three to 14, ran down the stairs of their apartment block along with other residents, many of them screaming and crying.

“There is almost no safe place in Gaza,” she said.

Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with air strikes again on Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.

A Palestinian man passes by the remains of a building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City.Credit:AP

Gaza’s Hamas rulers and other militant groups have fired barrages of hundreds of rockets that at times overwhelmed Israel’s missile defences, causing air raid sirens and explosions to echo across Tel Aviv, Israel’s biggest metropolitan area, and other cities.

Israeli air strikes levelled two apartment towers in the Gaza Strip. Two million Palestinians live in the strip under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007. Warning shots have allowed civilians to evacuate the buildings, but the material losses will be immense. Israel faced heavy criticism over the tactic during the 2014 war which is now the subject of an investigation by the International Criminal Court into possible war crimes. Israel is not a member of the court and has rejected the probe.

An Israeli firefighter works at the site where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, hit the central Israeli town of Holon, near Tel Aviv.Credit:AP

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israeli forces had strict rules of engagement and follow international laws on armed conflict. “We are definitely very mindful of civilian casualties in Gaza and we want to minimise them,” he said. “That’s the priority.”

Just after daybreak, Israel unleashed dozens of air strikes in a few minutes, targeting police and security installations, witnesses said. A wall of dark grey smoke rose over Gaza City. The Hamas-run Interior Ministry said air strikes destroyed the central police headquarters, a compound with several buildings.

“Israel has gone crazy,” one man told Reuters on a Gaza street, where people ran out of their homes as explosions rocked the city.

The death toll in Gaza rose to 35 Palestinians, including 12 children and three women, according to the Health Ministry. Some 233 people were wounded. Five Israelis, including three women and a child, were killed by rocket fire on Tuesday and early Wednesday, and dozens of Israelis were wounded.

Youths inspect destroyed buildings after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City on Wednesday.Credit:AP

The Israeli military said militants fired more 1050 rockets since the conflict began, with 200 of them falling short and landing inside Gaza. The military said it also shot down a drone that entered Israel from Gaza.

Conricus, the Israeli military spokesman, said two infantry brigades were sent to the area, indicating preparations for a possible ground invasion.

The latest eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem, where heavy-handed police tactics during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers ignited protests and clashes with police. A focal point was al-Aqsa mosque compound, a holy site sacred to Jews and Muslims, which was targeted by security forces.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. The conflicts ended after regional and international powers convinced both sides to accept an informal truce.

While the violence has been widely condemned, there is no sign that either side is willing to back down. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to expand the offensive, saying “this will take time” and warning Palestinians militants would pay a “very heavy” price for rocket attacks on Israel.

An Israeli soldier stands guard next to an Iron Dome air defense system as smoke rises from an oil tank on fire after it was hit by a rocket fire from Gaza Strip, near the town of Ashkelon, Israel.Credit:AP

The unrest in Jerusalem has spread across Israel itself, with an outbreak of communal violence in mixed Jewish-Arab communities, as Hamas has called for a full-scale Palestinian intifada, or uprising. The last such uprising also began with violence at al-Aqsa mosque, in 2000, and lasted more than five years.

Gaza Health Ministry spokesman Ashraf al-Kidra said the targeting of residential neighbourhoods left people “in a state of panic”.

In the Israeli city of Lod, a 52-year-old man and his 16-year-old daughter were killed early Wednesday when a rocket had landed in the courtyard of their one-storey home. Their car parked outside was wrecked and the interior of the house was filled by debris.

Relatives of Palestinian Ahmed al-Shenbari, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, mourn during his funeral on Tuesday.Credit:Getty Images

Lod also saw heavy clashes after thousands of mourners joined a funeral for an Arab man killed by a suspected Jewish gunman the previous night. The crowd fought with police, and set a synagogue and some 30 vehicles, including a police car, on fire, Israeli media reported. Paramedics said a 56-year-old man was seriously hurt after his car was pelted with stones.

“[If] an intifada erupted in Lod, you have to bring in the army,” the city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, said. Authorities have declared a state of emergency and ordered the redeployment of nine paramilitary border police companies from the occupied West Bank as reinforcements.

Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Tel Aviv on Tuesday night. Credit:AP

In neighbouring Ramle, ultra-nationalist Jewish demonstrators were filmed attacking cars belonging to Arabs. In the northern port town of Acre, protesters torched a Jewish-owned restaurant and hotel. Police said they arrested more than 150 people involved in “disturbances and riots” overnight in northern and central Israel.

Confrontations erupted last weekend at al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Over four days, Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs at the forces. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.

On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza. From there on, the escalation was rapid.

In a televised address, Hamas’ exiled leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel bore responsibility. “It’s the Israeli occupation that set Jerusalem on fire, and the flames reached Gaza,” he said.

Hamas has not commented on Israel’s claims that it has killed a number of high-ranking militants. Islamic Jihad confirmed that three senior commanders were killed in a strike on their hideout in a Gaza City apartment building.

Netanyahu said Israel had attacked hundreds of targets. The fiercest attack was a set of air strikes that brought down an entire 12-storey building. The building housed important Hamas offices, as well as a gym and some start-up businesses. Israel fired a series of warning shots before demolishing the building, allowing people to flee and there were no casualties.

Israeli aircraft heavily damaged another Gaza City building early Wednesday. The nine-storey structure housed residential apartments, medical companies and a dental clinic. A drone fired five warning rockets before the bombing. Israel said the building housed Hamas intelligence offices and the group’s command responsible for planning attacks on Israeli targets in the occupied West Bank.

Fighter jets struck the building again after journalists and rescuers had gathered around. There was no immediate word on casualties. The high-rise stood 200 meters away from the Associated Press bureau in Gaza City, and smoke and debris reached the office.

Soon after the bombing, Hamas announced that it would resume its attacks, and fired 100 rockets at the Israeli desert town of Beersheba. Hamas said the renewed barrage was in response to the strike on the building.

Diplomats sought to intervene, with Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations working to deliver a ceasefire. All three serve as mediators between Israel and Hamas.

The UN Security Council planned to hold its second closed emergency meeting in three days on Wednesday on the escalating violence, an indication of growing international concern. Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private, said the UN’s most powerful body did not issue a statement because of US concerns that it could escalate tensions.


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