Israeli strikes kill 24 in Gaza including children, Hamas militants
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip— Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza early Tuesday, hitting the high-rise home of a Hamas field commander and two border tunnels dug by militants, as Hamas and other armed groups fired dozens of rockets towards Israel. It was an escalation sparked by weeks of tensions in contested Jerusalem.
Since sundown Monday when the cross-border fighting erupted, 24 Palestinians – including nine children – were killed in Gaza, most by airstrikes, Gaza health officials said. The Israeli military said 15 of the dead were militants. During the same period, Gaza militants fired more than 200 rockets toward Israel, injuring six Israeli civilians in a direct hit on an apartment building.
This was preceded by hours of clashes Monday between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, mainly in Jerusalem but also across the West Bank. More than 700 Palestinians were hurt, including nearly 500 who were treated at hospitals.
In a sign of widening unrest, hundreds of residents of Arab communities across Israel staged overnight demonstrations against the situation in Jerusalem, one of the largest protests by Palestinian citizens in Israel in recent years.
The current violence, like previous rounds, was fuelled by conflicting claims over Jerusalem, home to major holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The rival national and religious narratives of Israelis and Palestinians are rooted in the city, making it the emotional core of their long conflict.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Monday that fighting could “continue for some time.” Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that the military was in “the early stages” of strikes against Gaza targets it had planned well in advance.
The tensions in Jerusalem coincided with the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in mid-April. Heavy-handed police measures helped stoke nightly unrest, including an Israeli decision to temporarily seal off a popular night-time gathering spot where Palestinian residents would meet after evening prayers. Another flashpoint was the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah where dozens of Palestinians are under treat of eviction by Jewish settlers. The eviction proceedings have been condemned by the European Union and other countries.
Over the weekend, confrontations erupted at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in east Jerusalem, which was captured and annexed by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. The compound, located in Jerusalem’s Old City, is the third holiest site of Islam and the holiest site of Judaism.
For four successive days, Israel police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs. Hundreds of Palestinians were hurt, requiring hospital treatment. Two dozen officers were also injured. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.
On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza, setting off air raid sirens as far as Jerusalem, after giving Israel a deadline to withdraw Israeli security forces from the compound. From there on, the escalation was rapid.
Conricus, the army spokesman, said Gaza militants fired more than 200 rockets at Israel, with about one-third falling short and landing in Gaza.
The Israeli army said that a rocket landed a direct hit on a seven-story apartment block in the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon. Photos and videos from the scene showed a large blast hole on the side of the building. Israeli paramedic service Magen David Adom said it treated six people injured in the strike. Two were hospitalised in a moderate condition.
Israel said it responded with 130 strikes carried out by fighter jets and attack helicopters on military targets in the enclave, killing 15 commanders from Hamas and the group Islamic Jihad, Conricus told reporters.
He said Israel had no confirmation that its strikes had impacted Gaza civilians, or whether the casualties there were caused by Palestinian rockets misfiring.
He listed the sites hit by Israel as weapons manufacturing and storage facilities, militant training areas and the home of a Hamas commander, among other targets.
In one sign of escalation, an Israeli missile hit the upper floors of an apartment building in the Shati refugee camp on the edge of Gaza City early Tuesday, killing two men and a woman inside, according to health officials.
Israel had struck scores of Gaza homes in its 2014 war with Hamas, arguing it was aiming at militants, but also killing many civilians. The practice drew broad international condemnation at the time.
Diplomatic sources told AFP that Egypt and Qatar, who have mediated past Israeli-Hamas conflicts, were attempting to calm tensions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken strongly condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas, saying they “need to stop immediately”.
“All sides need to de-escalate, reduce tensions, take practical steps to calm things down,” he said.
Israel’s tactics in Jerusalem have drawn angry reactions from the Arab and Muslim world.
Regional power house Saudi Arabia said in a new statement that it condemns in the strongest terms what it said were attacks by Israeli forces against the sanctity of Al-Aqsa and the safety of its worshippers. The Saudi foreign ministry called Tuesday on the international community to hold Israeli forces responsible for any escalation.
Separately, the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Cooperation is holding an emergency meeting of its permanent representatives in Jiddah to discuss the tensions in Jerusalem.
Israel political fallout
The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.
Netanyahu has been acting as a caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. He tried and failed to form a coalition government with his hard-line and ultra-Orthodox allies and the task was handed to his sworn political rivals last week. One of those rivals is Israel’s defense minister who is overseeing the Gaza campaign. It is not clear if and to what extent the toxic political atmosphere is spilling over into military decision-making, though the rival camps have unanimously expressed support for striking Hamas hard.
Israeli media have reported that the new round of violence is slowing efforts by Netanyahu’s rivals to form a ruling coalition consisting of parties with a broad range of ideologies, but a shared goal of toppling Netanyahu. The support of an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is key for the anti-Netanyahu bloc’s efforts. The party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, has essentially said he’ll work with the political camp offering the most improvements to Arab communities, but the current tensions over Jerusalem and Israel’s Gaza strikes might deter him from joining a coalition, at least for now.