Gaza: Relentless rocket fire and rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab towns fuelled growing fears on Wednesday that violence between Israel and Palestinians that has claimed lives of 48 Palestinians.
Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes on Hamas and other Islamist groups in the crowded coastal enclave of Gaza, while Palestinian militants have launched more than 1,000 rockets since Monday, said Israel’s army.
The most intense hostilities in seven years have killed at least 48 people in Gaza, including 14 children, two Palestinians in the West Bank, and five Israelis, triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
One multi-story residential building in Gaza collapsed and another was heavily damaged after they were repeatedly hit by Israeli air strikes.
Israel said its jets had targeted and killed several Hamas intelligence leaders early on Wednesday. Other strikes targeted what the military said were rocket launch sites, Hamas offices and the homes of Hamas leaders.
It was the heaviest offensive between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in Gaza, and prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.
Gazans’ homes shook and the sky lit up from Israeli attacks, outgoing rockets and Israeli air defence missiles intercepting them. At least 30 explosions were heard within a matter of minutes just after dawn on Wednesday.
UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland tweeted: “Stop the fire immediately. We’re escalating towards a full-scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation.
“The cost of war in Gaza is devastating and is being paid by ordinary people. UN is working with all sides to restore calm. Stop the violence now,” he wrote.
Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz vowed more attacks on Palestinian militant groups in Gaza to bring “total, long-term quiet” before considering a ceasefire.
“The army will continue to attack to bring a total, long-term quiet. Only when we reach that goal will we be able to speak about a truce,” Gantz said in the southern city of Ashkelon which has been hit by Palestinian rocket fire.
Israelis ran for shelters or flattened themselves on pavements in communities more than 70 kilometres up the coast and into southern Israel amid sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky.
In the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, two people were killed after a rocket hit a vehicle in the area. Lod and other mixed towns have been gripped by angry demonstrations over the Gaza violence and tensions in Jerusalem.
Six Israelis killed in rocket attack
Six people in Israel, including three women and a child, were killed by rocket fire on Tuesday and early Wednesday, while 45 others have been injured.
Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, and that two women had been killed in rocket strikes on Ashkelon on Tuesday.
No details were shared on the identities of the two people killed in Lod, where Jewish and Palestinian Muslims live.
Hamas’s armed wing said it fired 210 rockets towards Beersheba and Tel Aviv in response to the bombing of the tower buildings in Gaza City.
Israel’s military says that around a third of the rockets have fallen short, landing within Gaza.
For Israel, the militants’ targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with Hamas.
The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the month of Ramazan, with attacks by Israeli police on Palestinian protesters in and around Al Aqsa Mosque.
Violence also flared in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians in separate clashes, near Nablus and near Hebron, the Palestinian health ministry said.
Israel occupied East Jerusalem during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and annexed the entire city in 1980 – a move that has never been recognised by the international community.