Gaza death toll climbs as Israel escalates aerial bombardment

The death toll in Gaza has climbed above 100 as Israel pounded the enclave with more air strikes and artillery shells, while Hamas sent a heavy barrage of rockets deep into Israel, even as Egyptian negotiators held in-person mediation talks with the two sides.

The four days of cross-border violence showed no sign of abating as Palestinians marked the first day of the Eid al-Fitr religious holiday on Thursday, and the violence has also spread to mixed communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel, a new front in the long conflict.

In another potential escalation, at least three rockets were fired from southern Lebanon toward Israel, an attack that threatened to open a new front in the fighting.

Worried that the region’s worst hostilities in years could spiral out of control, the United States is sending an envoy, Hady Amr, to the region. Truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations have so far offered no sign of progress.

In renewed air strikes on Gaza, Israeli warplanes struck a six-storey residential building that it said belonged to Hamas, the group that controls the Palestinian enclave. Netanyahu said Israel has struck close to 1,000 targets in Gaza in total.

Israeli artillery and tank shells fired into Gaza on Thursday evening forced scores of families to flee their homes, Palestinian witnesses said.

The Gaza health ministry said 103 people, including 27 children and 11 women, have been killed and 580 others wounded since Israel’s operation began on Monday – further straining hospitals already under heavy pressure during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Palestinian rocket crashed into a building near Israel’s commercial capital of Tel Aviv, injuring five Israelis, police said. Seven people have been killed in Israel since hostilities began, the Israeli military said.

Israel massed additional soldiers and tanks near Gaza on Thursday and Israel’s defence minister approved the mobilisation of 9,000 more reservist troops. But the armed forces maintained a ground offensive was not the primary focus of the operation against Palestinian fighters.

“We are prepared, and continue to prepare for various scenarios,” army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said, describing a ground offensive as “one scenario”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the campaign “will take more time”.

Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from southern Israel, said the Israeli army was going to present a plan for a ground operation to the government.

“That doesn’t mean that it [the plan] will go ahead as a ground offensive in Gaza would be a huge escalatory step that carries with it a huge amount of risk,” he said.

Many world leaders have condemned the violence and urged restraint, and a visit by Egyptian security officials was a significant development in international efforts to bring about a ceasefire – such efforts have been key to ending past rounds of fighting.

The officials met first with Hamas leaders in Gaza before holding talks with the Israelis in Tel Aviv, two Egyptian intelligence officials said. They spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the press.

Still, both Israel and Hamas seemed determined to press ahead.

In Gaza, a pall was cast over Eid al-Fitr, the holiday at the end of Ramadan’s month of daily fasting. It is usually a festive time when families shop for new clothes and gather for large feasts.

Instead, Hamas urged the faithful to mark communal Eid prayers inside their homes or the nearest mosques instead of out in the open, as is traditional.

In Gaza’s southern town of Khan Younis, dozens of mourners marched through the streets carrying the bodies of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old killed when an Israeli air strike hit near their home on Wednesday.

In Israel, rocket fire from Gaza brought life to a standstill in southern communities near the enclave, but also reached as far north as the Tel Aviv area, about 70km (45 miles) away, for a second straight day.

The barrages appeared aimed at demonstrating that Hamas’s arsenal was still full even after three nights of Israeli air strikes and the killing on Wednesday of several Hamas commanders.

Israel diverted some incoming flights from Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, to the Ramon airfield in the country’s far south, the transportation ministry said. Several flights have also been cancelled.

Hamas said it fired its most powerful rocket, the Ayyash, towards Ramon, 180km (110 miles) from Gaza on Thursday.

The rocket landed in a desert area, and no air raid sirens sounded, Israeli media reported.

Still, flights were briefly suspended at the airport, with several planes left circling before landings and takeoffs resumed, according to tracking websites.

Netanyahu visited batteries of the Iron Dome missile defence system, which the military says has intercepted 90 percent of the 1,200 rockets that have reached Israel from Gaza so far.

“It will take more time, but with great firmness … we will achieve our goal – to restore peace to the State of Israel,” he said.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the “indiscriminate launching of rockets” from civilian areas in Gaza towards Israeli population centres, but he also urged Israel to show “maximum restraint”.

Intercommunal violence

The current eruption of violence began a month ago in East Jerusalem, where heavy-handed Israeli police tactics during Ramadan and the threatened forced expulsions of dozens of Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to make way for Jewish settlers ignited protests and a police crackdown.

Israel regards Jerusalem in its entirety as its capital, while the Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.

Hundreds of Palestinians were injured over the weekend and on Monday as Israeli police attacked worshippers in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

Hamas, claiming to be defending the city, launched a barrage of rockets at Jerusalem late on Monday, in a dramatic escalation after Israel failed to meet an ultimatum to stand down its forces from the Al-Aqsa compound.

The recent fighting has also set off violence between Jewish Israelis and Palestinian citizens of Israel, in the worst intercommunal unrest in decades. Netanyahu warned that he was prepared to use an “iron fist if necessary” to calm the violence.

Confrontations erupted again late on Wednesday. Jewish and Palestinian Israeli mobs battled in the central city of Lod, also known as Lydd, the epicentre of the troubles, despite a state of emergency and nighttime curfew.

In nearby Bat Yam, Jewish nationalists dragged a motorist they suspected of being Palestinian from his car and beat him until he was motionless.

Israeli police said two people were shot and wounded in Lod and an Israeli Jew was stabbed.

A Palestinian citizen was stabbed and seriously wounded in Jerusalem’s central Mahane Yehuda market.

In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military said it intervened in a Palestinian shooting attack that wounded two people. The Palestinian health ministry said the suspected gunman was killed.

Ibrahim said that the majority of people were hit by live ammunition and that most injuries occurred in the southern West Bank city of Hebron.

“It was an exceptionally high number of injuries by live fire which shows us that the situation could be escalating rapidly,” she added.

At least eight Palestinians were wounded on Thursday when a group of settlers from an illegal settlement attacked Duwwaneh village near Hebron, Ibrahim said. Four of them were hospitalised, according to local sources.

Parts of a broken mannequin lie on the ground near a tower building which was hit by Israeli air strikes, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City May 12, 2021. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

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