No normal life for Israelis in range of Gaza rockets

By Amir Cohen and Ari Rabinovitch

ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) – Sirens wail, radio broadcasts are interrupted, cellphones beep with Red Alerts every few seconds, and warning messages flash up on TV. When you hear them, rush for cover.

This has become the routine across large areas of central and southern Israel, from small towns bordering Gaza to metropolitan Tel Aviv and southern Beersheva.

More than 2,000 rockets have been launched by Hamas and other armed Palestinian groups into Israel this week alone, amid the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since 2014.

It’s not a routine you can ever get used to, said Lior Dabush from the coastal city of Ashkelon, about 12 km (7 miles) north of Gaza.

“We rarely leave the house,” Dabush, 37, said from her apartment’s ‘safe’ room – a mandatory feature for all new homes in Israel – where she now sleeps with her two children.

“We take short showers and we don’t venture far from home,” she told Reuters. “At times my eight-year-old son does not want to leave the safe room.”

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, launched the latest round of rocket attacks on Monday, after widespread Palestinian anger at threatened evictions of families from East Jerusalem, and Israeli police clashes with worshippers near Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site.

The threat of rockets even penetrated as far as Jerusalem, when impacts in villages on the outskirts set off sirens in the centre of the city, forcing Israelis taking part in an annual holiday to flee for cover, some running under the medieval battlements of the Jaffa Gate entrance to the walled Old City.

‘DAMAGED FOR LIFE’

On the other side of the Gaza border, Palestinian civilians also find themselves trapped between the militant groups firing the rockets and the Israeli military, which has spent days bombarding Gaza with hundreds of aerial and artillery shells.

Residents of north Gaza have fled their homes to take shelter in U.N.-run schools and Palestinian officials say at least 124 people there have been killed, including 31 children.

The rockets have killed eight people in Israel, including a five-year-old who was struck by shrapnel that managed to pierce the shielding of his reinforced ‘safe’ room.

That attack happened in the border town of Sderot, where it’s a matter of seconds between siren and impact, and the streets are largely empty of pedestrians.

Idit Botera, mother of a one-year-old child, said her sixth-floor apartment was damaged in the same barrage on Wednesday.

“We still haven’t processed what happened, our blood is boiling,” she said shortly after the strike. “These are kids who are being damaged for life and it doesn’t make sense.”

The impact on children – and the effect it will have on them later in life – is a common theme for Israelis living near Gaza, for whom rockets are an unwelcome but unavoidable fact of life.

In Netiv Haasara, a small Israeli community just north of the barrier that separates Israel from the Gaza Strip, tour guide Raz Shmilovitch, 45, reflected earlier this week on the toll the latest hostilities were taking.

“My family is not here now, I have taken them to a more remote safe place in which they will be safer to stay,” he said.

“In the longer run, once the war is over we are going to have to deal with the consequences of raising post-traumatic kids,” he told Reuters.

“If you have been living all your life as a kid under the threat of rockets being launched and being landed in your back yard, and you have between five to seven seconds from alarm to impact and that is the reality you are used to, that messes with your brain.”

(Reporting by Ran Tzabari, Amir Cohen, Baz Ratner and Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israel pounds Gaza to curb Palestinian militants but rockets still fly

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel pummeled Gaza with artillery fire and air strikes on Friday as it targeted Palestinian militant tunnels to try to stop persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

The 40-minute, pre-dawn offensive killed 13 Palestinians, including a mother and her three children whose bodies were pulled from the rubble of their home, health officials in Gaza said.

The Israeli operation included 160 aircraft as well as tanks and artillery firing from outside the Gaza Strip, Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

Palestinian rocket barrages against southern Israel swiftly followed on the fifth day of the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since 2014.

Egypt was leading international efforts to secure a ceasefire and ensure the conflict does not spread. Security sources said neither side appeared amenable so far but a Palestinian official said negotiations intensified on Friday.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, urging a return to peace in the region.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, launched the rocket attacks on Monday, in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, in East Jerusalem.

Violence has since spread to cities where Jews and Israel’s minority Arab community live side by side. There have also been clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where health officials said seven Palestinians were killed on Friday.

At least 122 people have been killed since Monday in Gaza, including 31 children and 20 women, and 900 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said.

Among eight dead in Israel were a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, six Israeli civilians – including two children, an elderly woman and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

SYSTEM OF TUNNELS

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were reports of more than 200 housing units destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza and hundreds of people seeking shelter in schools in the north of the coastal enclave.

Israel says it makes every effort to preserve civilian life, including warning in advance of attacks.

“What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover,” Conricus told foreign reporters, adding that the network was known as “the Metro”.

Israeli warplanes bombed the houses of three senior Hamas military commanders in central Gaza on Friday that had already been evacuated, local residents said.

An Israeli plane also bombed the building that housed the National Production Bank in Gaza City, with bricks and debris sent flying and windows shattered in some nearby buildings, witnesses said.

Dozens of mourners took part in the funeral of six people – members of two families whose houses were hit by Israeli air strikes on Thursday – in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

Holding the cloth-bound body of his 19-month-old nephew in his arms, Khamees al-Rantissi said their house was bombed without prior warning. “What was this child doing? What threat did he pose for the state of Israel?” Rantissi asked.

Netanyahu said on Thursday the campaign “will take more time”. Israeli officials said Hamas must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any ceasefire.

The Israeli military’s build-up of forces on the Gaza border has raised speculation about a possible repeat of ground invasions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2009, but Israel is loath to risk a sharp increase in military casualties.

FLURRY OF DIPLOMACY

Egypt was pushing for both sides to cease fire from midnight on Friday pending further negotiations, two Egyptian security sources said, with Cairo leaning on Hamas and others, including the United States, trying to reach an agreement with Israel.

“The talks have taken a real and serious path on Friday,” a Palestinian official said. “The mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are stepping up their contacts with all sides in a bid to restore calm, but a deal hasn’t yet been reached.”

The hostilities have fueled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority. Violence continued in mixed communities overnight after street fighting and tit-for-tat attacks that prompted Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, who led Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque, decried the treatment of the mosque by Israeli forces. He said its “sanctity has been violated several times during the holy month of Ramadan” in what he called violations “unprecedented” since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel’s military said a Palestinian tried to stab a soldier near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The soldier shot the attacker. Palestinian health officials said the man was killed.

Major airlines have suspended flights to Israel and at least two owners of tankers delivering crude oil asked to divert from Ashkelon to the port of Haifa, farther north of Gaza, because of the conflict, shipping sources said on Friday.

There were pro-Palestinian protests in Jordan and Lebanon, on the borders of the West Bank and Israel, and in Bangladesh, where thousands marched from Dhaka’s national mosque.

But the broader picture across the Middle East and the Islamic world, where Muslims are marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday and where restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 are in place in some countries, was noticeably muted.

The U.N. Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said after the United States had objected to a meeting on Friday.

The Israeli military has put the number of militants killed in Israeli attacks at between 80 and 90. It said that so far, some 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 430 fell short in Gaza or malfunctioned.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch in Israel; Aidan Lewis in Cairo, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)

ICC prosecutor warns against crimes in escalating Israel-Palestinian violence

By Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie van den Berg

THE HAGUE, Netherlands (Reuters) – Individuals involved in a new eruption of Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed may be targeted by an International Criminal Court investigation now under way into alleged war crimes in earlier bouts of the conflict, its top prosecutor said in an interview.

The ICC’s Fatou Bensouda told Reuters she would press ahead with her inquiry even without the cooperation of Israel, which accuses her office of anti-Semitic bias and – like its closest ally the United States – rejected membership in the treaty-based court, objecting to its jurisdiction. Israel and Palestinian Islamist groups plunged this week into their fiercest round of fighting since 2014, with punishing Israeli air strikes on Gaza and militants based in the densely populated enclave firing over 1,600 rockets into Israel. At least 83 Palestinians and seven Israelis have died.

“These are events that we are looking at very seriously,” Bensouda said. “We are monitoring very closely and I remind that an investigation has opened and the evolution of these events could also be something we look at.”

In March her office said it was opening a formal investigation into suspected war crimes in the conflict after nearly five years of preliminary inquiries.

It said it had reasonable basis to believe offences had been committed by both the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups, including militants of the Hamas group, in the Gaza Strip and in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“This is just to alert people on all sides not to escalate, to be careful to avoid taking actions that will result in the commission of (war) crimes,” Bensouda said in a reference to the current hostilities.

The ICC, based in The Hague, is an independent, permanent war crimes court that succeeded ad hoc U.N. tribunals which tackled the 1990s Rwandan genocide and Yugoslav conflict. It prosecutes individuals, not countries, when a member state is unwilling or unable to do so itself.

‘POLITICALLY FRAUGHT’ INVESTIGATION

The ICC is examining whether Israeli forces committed war crimes – including disproportionate attacks and willful killings of civilians – during the 2014 Gaza war when Israeli armored forces swept into the heavily urbanized enclave.

It is also probing whether Hamas, which rules Gaza, and other Palestinian armed factions carried out intentional attacks on civilians with rocket fire into Israel, as well as torture and killings of Palestinians by Palestinian security services.

While the investigation is “politically fraught”, Bensouda said, she denied accusations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that her office was biased, or was singling out the state of Israel.

“It is regrettable and indeed unfortunate that these are the reactions that the prime minister would have. This is far from the truth,” said Bensouda, a Gambian who will be replaced by Britain’s Karim Khan when her nine-year term ends next month.

Bensouda said the decision to pursue the investigation was anchored “in the law”, not politics.

“There is a lot of rhetoric. There is also unfortunately a lot of misinformation about what this case is and what it is not…And there is a lot of spinning about the ICC, trying to portray (it) as being biased, one-sided…which is not the case. We are always very impartial. We are always very objective.”

Bensouda said her investigators met regularly with Israeli and Palestinian officials about the ICC’s preliminary inquiries to create transparency and give both sides a fair opportunity to present their positions.

“This is perhaps even more complex than what we have faced before,” Bensouda said, “but yes, at the moment there are signs there will be no cooperation whatsoever from one side…, and (we) will have to look for a way to deal with that.”

The Palestinian Authority, which exercises self-rule in parts of the West Bank but has no power in Gaza, is an ICC member and has repeatedly urged it to prosecute Israelis over alleged crimes in wars in 2014 and 2008-09.

More than 2,100 Palestinians were killed in the seven-week Gaza war in 2014, which saw a devastating Israeli offensive into the enclave during which thousands of homes were razed, along with 73 Israelis from rockets fired out of Gaza into Israel.

This time around, many more Gaza rockets are crashing into Israel’s commercial heartland, while Israel said it had bombed close to a thousand militant targets in Gaza and has massed tanks and troops along the enclave’s border.

Asked about the ICC investigation, Israel military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said Israeli forces were “committed to international law” and that Hamas militants should be prosecuted.

“Hamas is a globally recognized terrorist organization that should be held accountable for its crimes, its blatant disregard for human life,” he told Reuters.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said Palestinian militant groups were carrying out a “natural right of self-defense” and it was Israeli leaders the ICC should prosecute.

“Our people are the victims of the aggression conducted by the Israeli occupation, which is carrying out all forms of killing and terrorism against our people,” he told Reuters.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch and Stephanie van den Berg; Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell and Zainah El-Haroun in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Gaza conflict intensifies with rocket barrages and air strikes

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel’s commercial heartland on Thursday as Israel kept up a punishing bombing campaign in Gaza and massed tanks and troops on the enclave’s border.

The four days of cross-border fighting showed no sign of abating and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the campaign “will take more time”.

Violence has also spread to mixed communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel, a new front in the long conflict. Synagogues were attacked and fighting broke out on the streets of some towns, prompting Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

At least 87 people have been killed in Gaza, including 18 children, over the past four days, Palestinian medical officials said. Hospitals already under heavy pressure because of the COVID-19 pandemic have faced further strain.

Seven people have been killed in Israel: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, five Israeli civilians, including two children, and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

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

U.S. President Joe Biden called on Thursday for a de-escalation of the violence, saying he wants to see a significant reduction in rocket attacks.

Militants fired rocket salvoes at Tel Aviv and surrounding towns, Israel’s commercial heartland, with the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepting many of them. Communities near the Gaza border and the southern desert city of Beersheba were also targeted.

Five Israelis were wounded by a rocket that hit a building near Tel Aviv.

Israeli warplanes struck a six-story residential building in Gaza that it said belonged to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave. Netanyahu said Israel has struck a total of close to 1,000 militant targets in the territory.

Israeli aircraft also attacked a Hamas intelligence headquarters and four apartments belonging to senior commanders from the group, the military said, adding that the homes were used for planning and directing strikes on Israel.

Standing beside a Gaza road damaged in Israeli air strikes, Assad Karam, 20, a construction worker, said: “We are facing Israel and COVID-19. We are in between two enemies.”

In Tel Aviv, Yishai Levy, an Israeli singer, pointed at shrapnel that came down on a sidewalk outside his home.

“I want to tell Israeli soldiers and the government, don’t stop until you finish the job,” he said on YNet television.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

A number of foreign carriers have cancelled flights to Israel because of the unrest.

‘DISRUPTING’ HAMAS

Brigadier-General Hidai Zilberman, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said attacks on militants’ rocket production and launching sites were “disrupting Hamas’ activities”, but still not to the point of stopping the barrages.

“It is more difficult for them, but we have to say in fairness that Hamas is an organized group, one that has the capability to continue to fire for several more days at the places it has been targeting in Israel,” he said on Israeli Channel 12 TV.

He said between 80 and 90 militants had been killed in Israeli attacks.

Zilberman said Israel was “building up forces on the Gaza border”, a deployment that has raised speculation about a possible ground invasion, a move that would recall similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and in 2009.

Israeli military affairs correspondents, who are briefed regularly by the armed forces, have said however that a major ground operation is unlikely, citing high casualties among the risks.

Hamas armed wing spokesman Abu Ubaida responded to the troop buildup with defiance, urging Palestinians to rise up.

“Mass up as you wish, from the sea, land and sky. We have prepared for your kinds of deaths that would make you curse yourselves,” he said.

FOREIGN APPEALS

So far some 1,750 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 300 fell short in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said two of its schools were hit on Tuesday and Wednesday “within the context of air strikes by Israel”, and that at least 29 classrooms were damaged.

School is in recess in Gaza, and classes have also been suspended in many parts of Israel, including in one town where an empty school was hit by a rocket on Tuesday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an “urgent de-escalation” of violence and French President Emmanuel Macron urged a “definite reset” of long-frozen Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also appealed for an end to the fighting.

The hostilities have fuelled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority who live alongside them in some communities.

Jewish and Arab groups attacked people and damaged shops, hotels and cars overnight. In Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, dozens of Jews beat and kicked a man thought to be an Arab as he lay on the ground.

One person was shot and badly wounded by Arabs in the town of Lod, where authorities imposed a curfew, and over 150 arrests were made in Lod and Arab towns in northern Israel, police said.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called for an end to “this madness”.

Although the latest unrest in Jerusalem was the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians are frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state in recent years, including Washington’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The conflict has led to the freezing of talks by Netanyahu’s opponents on forming a governing coalition to unseat him after an inconclusive election in March.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Rami Ayyub and Dan Williams, Additional reporting by Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

Israel declares curfew, boosts police in Arab-Jewish town hit by violence

By Rami Ayyub and Ronen Zvulun

LOD, Israel (Reuters) -Jews cleared Torah scrolls from a torched synagogue on Wednesday and burnt-out cars lined nearby streets in an ethnically mixed Israeli town hit by violence denounced by the president as “unforgivable” acts by Arabs incensed at air strikes on Gaza.

Moving to head off further violence in Lod, which has also seen assaults by Jews on Arab passersby, police declared a night-time curfew and deployed heavily armed reinforcements.

In several other areas populated by Israel’s 21% Arab minority, Palestinian flags adorned electricity poles and hundreds of residents have turned out for protests, sometimes clashing with police or Jewish residents.

“We have lost control of the city and the streets,” Lod Mayor Yair Revivo told Channel 12 News after nightly confrontations in which an Arab townsman was shot dead, a killing in which two Jewish suspects have been arrested.

Scores of other people have been arrested in Lod and in majority-Arab towns in central and northern Israel, including Umm al-Fahm along the West Bank border and Jisr al-Zarqa on the Mediterranean coast, police said.

In Lod, men carried Torah scrolls through the blackened and debris-strewn yard of the torched synagogue. President Reuven Rivlin described events in terms recalling anti-Semitism abroad.

“The sight of the pogrom in Lod and the disturbances across the country by an incited and bloodthirsty Arab mob … is unforgivable,” he said, calling the flying of the Palestinian flag by protesters “a brutal assault on shared existence”.

Israel’s Arab minority – Palestinian by heritage, Israeli by citizenship – is mostly descended from the Palestinians who lived under Ottoman and then British colonial rule before staying in Israel after the country’s 1948 creation.

Most are bilingual in Arabic and Hebrew, and feel a sense of kinship with Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip. They often complain of systemic discrimination, unfair access to housing, healthcare, and education services.

Tension in Arab-Jewish towns has risen as Israel conducted air strikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants fired rockets into Israel in an escalation of violence since clashes in East Jerusalem on Monday morning.

Ibrahim, an Arab councilor with the Lod municipality, said: “What is happening now is (an) uprising that is going on (in) cities like Ramle, Lod, Jaffa, Acre and Haifa,” calling events in Gaza and Jerusalem a “red line” for Arabs.

In the coastal city of Acre, Uri Buri, a Jewish-owned fish restaurant, was set fire to and some Arab residents said they were scared to leave home.

In Jaffa, near Tel Aviv, Arab protesters clashed with police firing stun grenades to disperse them.

“We condemn that our people’s solidarity and cohesion with our brethren in Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip is being channeled through acts of sabotage to public and private property, as is now happening at Umm al-Fahm’s entrance,” said Samir Mahamid, Mayor of Umm al-Fahm.

Neighbourhoods with Arab residents, including Lod and Jaffa, were among those where sirens were triggered by rocket fire. An Arab resident of Lod and his daughter were killed on Wednesday when a vehicle was hit by a rocket, Israeli authorities said.

In Haifa and Jaffa, and in the Arab city of Nazareth, protesters have chanted slogans in support of Palestinians facing eviction from an East Jerusalem neighborhood under a long-running legal case.

Arab citizens of Israel were among the thousands of protesters who have faced off in recent days with Israeli police near Al-Aqsa mosque and elsewhere in Jerusalem’s Old City.

A spokesman for the Hamas Islamist militant group in Gaza encouraged Arab citizens to “rise up” against “our enemy and yours”.

(Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Michael Perry, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean and Giles Elgood)

U.S. sends envoy as Israel-Gaza barrages spiral, Hamas commander killed

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel killed a Hamas commander and vowed no let-up in its Gaza barrages on Wednesday as Palestinian militants rained rockets far across the border and Washington dispatched an envoy to try to calm their most intense hostilities in years.

At least 65 people have been killed in Gaza since violence escalated on Monday, according to the enclave’s health ministry. Six people have been killed in Israel, medical officials said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the Gaza City brigade commander and 15 other members of the Islamist militant group were killed in air strikes.

“This is just the beginning. We’ll hit them like they’ve never dreamed possible,” he said.

After the announcement, fresh rocket salvoes were fired at the Tel Aviv area and the cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon and Sderot.

Hamas confirmed the death of the commander and of “other leaders and holy warriors” in a statement. Its chief Ismail Haniyeh added: “The confrontation with the enemy is open-ended.”

Israel launched its military action after Hamas fired rockets in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians in East Jerusalem, including at a holy site during the fasting month of Ramadan. A Palestinian source said truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had made no progress to end the violence.

Describing the scenes of destruction as “harrowing”, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a senior aide, Hady Amr, would be sent to urge Israelis and Palestinians to seek calm.

Israel pledged to keep pummeling Hamas.

“A ‘truce’ is not part of the jargon on our lips, certainly not in the coming day or two,” military spokesman Brigadier-General Hidai Zilberman told public broadcaster Kan.

Israel’s military said its strikes were targeting rocket launch sites, Hamas offices and the homes of Hamas leaders.

“Israel has gone crazy,” said a man on a Gaza street, where people ran out of their homes as explosions rocked buildings.

Many Palestinians in Gaza are hoping for a reprieve on Thursday, the Eid al-Fitr holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin reaffirmed “ironclad support for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself”.

The fighting is the heaviest since a 2014 war in the Hamas-ruled enclave, and concern is growing that the situation could spiral out of control.

In Gaza, two multi-story residential buildings and a tower housing media outlets, including one linked to Hamas, collapsed after Israel warned occupants in advance to evacuate, and another structure was heavily damaged in the air strikes.

Twenty-four people were killed in Israeli air strikes on Gaza on Wednesday, Gaza’s health ministry said. Many in Israel also spent a sleepless night as waves of rockets hit its heartland, some blown out of the sky by Iron Dome interceptors.

“The children have escaped the coronavirus, and now a new trauma,” an Israeli woman in the coastal city of Ashkelon told Channel 11 TV.

Israelis ran to shelters or lay on pavements in some communities far from Gaza.

“All of Israel is under attack. It’s a very scary situation to be in,” said Margo Aronovic, a 26-year-old student, in Tel Aviv.

Along the Gaza border, an Israeli soldier was killed by an anti-tank missile, the military said. Two people were killed by a rocket in Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish town near Tel Aviv.

Tension also spilled over into Israel’s 21% Arab minority, some of whom have mounted pro-Palestinian protests. After a synagogue was torched in Lod, police deployed paramilitary reinforcements and announced a curfew.

GAS PLATFORM SHUT, FLIGHTS CANCELLED

U.S. energy corporation Chevron said it had shut down the Tamar natural gas platform off the Israeli coast on the instruction of the Energy Ministry. Israel said its energy needs would continue to be met.

At least two U.S. airlines cancelled flights from the United States to Tel Aviv on Wednesday and Thursday. Israel, whose Ben Gurion Airport briefly suspended operations on Monday after a rocket barrage on Tel Aviv, said national airline El Al stood ready to provide supplemental flights.

For Israel, the targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with Hamas, regarded as a terrorist group by Israel and the United States.

The violence followed weeks of tension during Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters near Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.

These escalated ahead of a court hearing – now postponed – that could lead to the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

The conflict has led to the freezing of talks by Netanyahu’s opponents on forming a governing coalition to unseat him after Israel’s inconclusive March 23 election.

Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank. Medical sources said a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli forces on Wednesday.

Gaza’s health ministry said 16 of the people killed in the enclave were children. The Israeli military said 200 of more than 1,000 rockets fired by Gaza factions had fallen short, potentially causing some Palestinian civilian casualties.

Five of the fatalities in Israel were civilians, including a child and an Indian worker, medical officials said.

Israel has dispatched infantry and armor to reinforce tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of its last ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks in 2014.

Although the latest problems in Jerusalem were the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians have been frustrated as their aspirations for an independent state have suffered setbacks in recent years.

These include Washington’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a U.S. plan to end the conflict that they saw as favourable to Israel, and continued settlement building.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams, Ari Rabinovitch and Rami Ayyub; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Timothy Heritage, Giles Elgood, Peter Graff)

Dozens dead as Israel and Hamas escalate aerial bombardments

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Tuesday, raising the death toll in two days to 30 Palestinians and three Israelis, with Israel carrying out multiple air strikes in Gaza and the Islamist militant group firing rockets at Tel Aviv.

A 13-story residential Gaza block collapsed after one of several dozen air strikes. Late into the night, Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with near-constant Israeli strikes.

Israelis ran for shelters in communities more than 70 km (45 miles) up the coast amid sounds of explosions as Israeli interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.

For Israel, the militants’ targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamist Hamas group, regarded as a terrorist organization by Israel and the United States.

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 Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the compound revered by Jews as Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

These escalated in recent days ahead of a – now postponed – court hearing in a case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

There appeared no imminent end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that militants would pay a “very heavy” price for the rockets, which reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating its capture of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.

“We are at the height of a weighty campaign,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks alongside his defense minister and military chief.

“Hamas and Islamic Jihad paid … and will pay a very heavy price for their belligerence … their blood is forfeit.”

Hamas – seeking the opportunity to marginalize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to present itself as the guardians of Palestinians in Jerusalem – said it was up to Israel to make the first move.

The militant group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said in a televised speech that Israel had “ignited fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences.”

Haniyeh said that Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had been in contact urging calm but that Hamas’s 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 on Tuesday that Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem “must be a place of co-existence.

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki opened her daily news briefing with a statement about the situation, saying that President Joe Biden’s primary focus was on de-escalation.

The United States was delaying U.N. Security Council efforts to issue a public statement on escalating tensions because it could be harmful to behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with the U.S. strategy.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the source said Washington is “actively engaged in diplomacy behind the scenes with all parties to achieve a ceasefire” and was concerned that a council statement might be counterproductive at the moment.

Israel said it had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza, and dispatched infantry and armor to reinforce the tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of the last Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks, in 2014.

More than 2,100 Gazans were killed in the seven-week war that followed, according to the Gaza health ministry, along with 73 Israelis, and thousands of homes in Gaza were razed.

PLUMES OF BLACK SMOKE

Video footage on Tuesday showed three plumes of thick, black smoke rising from the Gaza block as it toppled over. Electricity in the surrounding area went out.

Residents of the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area around an hour before the air strike, according to witnesses, and there were no reports of casualties two hours after it collapsed.

People in other blocks reported that they received warnings from Israel to evacuate ahead of a possible attack.

In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens and explosions were heard around the city. Pedestrians ran for shelter, and diners streamed out of restaurants while others flattened themselves on pavements as the sirens sounded.

The Israel Airports Authority said it had halted take-offs at Tel Aviv airport “to allow defense of the nation’s skies,” but later resumed them.

Video broadcast on Israeli Channel 12 television showed interceptor missiles rising above the runways.

The International Committee of the Red Cross urged all sides to step back, and reminded them of the requirement in international law to try to avoid civilian casualties.

“The recent rockets in Israel and air strikes in Gaza represent a dangerous escalation of the tensions and violence witnessed over the past days in Jerusalem, including its Old City,” Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, said in a statement.

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 the southern city of Ashkelon.

But the Israeli military said many of the rockets fired from Gaza had fallen short and wounded Palestinians, and that Israel’s Iron Dome air defenses had intercepted the bulk of those that made it across the border.

Violence has also ticked up in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian and injured another on Tuesday after they shot towards Israeli troops near the Palestinian city of Nablus, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York, and Stephen Farrell and Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Writing by Kevin Liffey; Editing by Giles Elgood and Howard Goller)

Jerusalem violence leads to Hamas rockets on Israel, nine dead in Gaza

By Jeffrey Heller and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) -Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired rockets toward the Jerusalem area and southern Israel on Monday, carrying out a threat to punish Israel for violent confrontations with Palestinians in Jerusalem.

The Gaza health ministry said nine Palestinians were killed in Israeli air strikes in the Palestinian territory after the barrages against Israel. The Israeli military issued no immediate comment on any action it had taken in the enclave.

Rocket sirens sounded in Jerusalem, in nearby towns and in communities near the Gaza minutes after an ultimatum from the enclave’s ruling Islamist Hamas group demanding Israel stand down forces in the al Aqsa mosque compound and another flashpoint in the holy city expired.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the rocket fire in Israel, but local media reported that a house in the Jerusalem hills had been damaged, in the most serious outbreak of hostilities with Hamas in months.

Along the fortified Gaza-Israeli border, a Palestinian anti-tank missile fired from the tiny coastal territory struck a civilian vehicle, injuring one Israeli, the military said.

Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group claimed responsibility for the rocket attacks. Israeli media reports said more than 30 rockets were fired.

“This is a message the enemy should understand well,” said Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for Hamas’s armed wing.

VIOLENCE AROUND AL AQSA MOSQUE

As Israel celebrated “Jerusalem Day” earlier on Monday, marking its capture of eastern sections of the holy city in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, violence erupted at the al Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third most sacred site.

The Palestinian Red Crescent Society said more than 300 Palestinians were injured in clashes with police who fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas in the compound, which is also revered by Jews at the site of biblical temples.

The skirmishes, in which police said 21 officers were also hurt, at al Aqsa had died down by the time Hamas issued the 6 p.m. (1500 GMT) ultimatum.

The hostilities caught Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at an awkward time, as opponents negotiate the formation of a governing coalition to unseat him after an inconclusive March 23 election.

For Hamas, some commentators said, its challenge to Israel was a sign to Palestinians, whose own elections have been postponed by President Mahmoud Abbas, that it was now calling the shots in holding Israel accountable for events in Jerusalem.

Recent clashes in Jerusalem have raised international concern about wider conflict, and the White House called on Israel to ensure calm during “Jerusalem Day.”

TENSIONS OVER THREATENED EVICTIONS

The Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem has also been a focal point of Palestinian protests during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Several Palestinian families face eviction, under Israeli court order, from homes claimed by Jewish settlers in a long-running legal case.

In an effort to defuse tensions, police changed the route of a traditional Jerusalem Day march, in which thousands of Israeli flag-waving Jewish youth walk through the Old City. They entered through Jaffa Gate, bypassing the Damascus Gate outside the Muslim quarter, which has been a flashpoint in recent weeks.

Police rushed the marchers to cover at Jaffa Gate after the sirens went off.

Israel views all of Jerusalem as its capital, including the eastern part that it annexed after the 1967 war in a move that has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a state they seek in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Ari Rabinovitch and Mark Heinrich)

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID spikes during Ramadan

By Rami Ayyub and Mohammed Salem

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The sick and dying are rapidly pushing Gaza’s hospitals close to capacity amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the impoverished Palestinian territory, health officials said.

Palestinians fear a combination of poverty, medical shortages, vaccine skepticism, poor COVID-19 data and mass gatherings during Ramadan could accelerate the increase, which began before the start of the Muslim holy month on April 13.

Gaza health officials said around 70% of intensive care unit beds were occupied, up from 37% at the end of March. There were 86 deaths over the past six days, an increase of 43% over the week before.

“The hospitals are almost at full capacity. They’re not quite there yet, but severe and critical cases have increased significantly in the last three weeks, which is a concern,” said Dr Ayadil Saparbekov, head of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Team in the Palestinian Territories.

Gaza’s daily positivity rate reached as high as 43% this week, although Saparbekov said that number could be inflated because a shortage of tests meant they were mostly given to people already showing symptoms.

Saparbekov also said Gaza does not have the capacity to identify highly infectious COVID-19 variants when testing, meaning there is little data on them.

‘NO TRUCE’

Graveyards are also feeling the strain. In Gaza City, gravedigger Mohammad al-Haresh told Reuters he had been burying up to 10 COVID-19 victims per day, up from one or two a month ago.

“Wartime was difficult, but the coronavirus has been much harder for us,” said Haresh, who dug graves throughout the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.

“In war, we would dig graves or bury the dead during a truce or ceasefire. With the coronavirus, there is no truce.”

Densely populated and home to 2 million Palestinians, Gaza has for years had limited access to the outside world because of a blockade led by Israel and supported by Egypt.

Both countries cite security concerns over Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, saying they want to stop money and weapons entering.

Palestinians say the blockade amounts to collective punishment and that it has crippled Gaza’s economy and medical infrastructure, with shortages of critical supplies and equipment hampering their ability to tackle the pandemic.

The situation in Gaza is a stark contrast to Israel, where a world-beating vaccination rollout has led to more than 53% of Israelis being fully vaccinated.

RAMADAN LOCKDOWN

Amid growing concern, Hamas will on Thursday begin a week of nightly curfews, shutting down mosques that host hundreds of worshippers for Ramadan evening prayers.

But with around 49% of Gazans unemployed and parliamentary elections slated for May 22, Hamas has held back from more drastic measures that could further damage the economy.

“We may impose additional measures, but we do not expect at this phase to go into a full lockdown,” Hamas spokesman Eyad Al-Bozom said.

Health officials say the factors that led to the current spike include the flouting of guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing and the opening in February of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which may have allowed in new variants.

Suspicion of vaccines also runs deep. A majority of Gazans – 54.2% – said they would not take the vaccine, against 30.5% who said they would and 15.3% who were undecided, according to an April 21 survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

Just 34,287 people have been vaccinated, even though the enclave has received 109,600 doses since February donated by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the global COVAX program.

“(The) reluctance of many, including medical staff, to be vaccinated remains a key concern,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an April 12 report.

One Palestinian eligible for Gaza’s initial round of vaccines, Qasem Abdul Ghafoor, said he decided to get the jab to protect himself and his family.

“The situation here is horrific. We took it lightly before, but I assure you, it should not be taken lightly,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mike Collett-White)

Gaza is open again, to the south. But for how long?

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

RAFAH, Gaza Strip (Reuters) – A fleet of yellow Mercedes taxis lines up outside Gaza’s newly reopened Rafah crossing into Egypt, polished again and ready to roll, but with no idea for how long.

Uncertainty is a fact of life in the Palestinian border town, where 4,500 people have crossed into Egypt in the two weeks since one of Gaza’s few lifelines to the outside world swung open on Feb. 9.

The opening eased the years-long blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt on the coastal strip, compounded by measures imposed by all sides to halt the spread of COVID-19.

It arose from political maneuvering: Egyptian-brokered mediation talks between rival Palestinian factions to smooth the way for possible elections.

But the travelers have no idea how long the gate will stay open.

“To me, Rafah crossing is my source of living. If it opens, I live, and I eat and buy clothes,” said Saif Rusrus, 21, who left school to sell pastries there. “As long as there are disputes, the crossing will continue to open and close.”

Israel and Egypt cite security concerns for the restrictions, pointing to the fact that Gaza is controlled by the Islamist militant group Hamas.

The two countries allow passage for thousands of workers and humanitarian cases each year, but most of Gaza’s two million Palestinians cannot leave.

“Gaza turns into a big prison when Rafah crossing is closed,” said hepatitis patient Uday Zaanin, 38, as he waited to board the bus.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Rafah; Writing by Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Giles Elgood)