Israeli police bar right-wing march through Jerusalem’s Old City

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli far right groups scrapped a planned march through Jerusalem’s Old City after police refused to authorize it amid fears it would rekindle strife that led to 11 days of intense fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants last month.

Several groups had planned a flag-waving procession through the walled Old City’s Damascus Gate and into its Muslim quarter this coming Thursday, drawing warnings from Gaza’s ruling Hamas movement of fresh hostilities should it go ahead.

The original march on May 10 was re-routed at the last minute as tensions around Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, where Palestinian families face eviction, led Hamas to fire rockets towards the holy city.

Israel responded with air strikes, and the most serious cross-border fighting with Hamas in years raged for 11 days before a fragile ceasefire was achieved. Arab-Jewish violence also erupted in several Israeli cities.

Police said on Monday the permit was denied for Thursday’s march to proceed on the date and along the route planned by the organizers, and that an alternative procession would be considered if submitted.

Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir said he would nonetheless march along the full route, accusing police of “capitulating to terrorism.”

A Hamas spokesman in Gaza said the police decision stemmed from Israel’s recognition of “the danger of crossing … red lines” set by the group over Israeli activity at sensitive sites in Jerusalem, and “consequences it may bring on the ground”.

It was not immediately clear if police made the move in consultation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, some of whose right-wing members have voiced support for the march as a show of Israel’s claim to sovereignty over East Jerusalem, disputed by Palestinians.

Israel’s Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, said on Twitter that the police ban should be reviewed by the government, floating the possibility that it could still be overturned.

Israel annexed East Jerusalem, in a move that has not won international recognition, after capturing the area in the 1967 Middle East war. It considers all of Jerusalem its capital.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of a state they seek to establish in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Tensions are likely to remain high in Jerusalem even if the march does not go ahead. Protests have flared in Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families face possible eviction after an Israeli court accepted Jewish settler land claims.

Israeli Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit informed the Supreme Court that he would not intervene in the legal proceedings, paving the way for the court to issue a ruling widely expected to be in favor of the settlers.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem and Nidal al-Mughrabi in GazaEditing by Jeffrey Heller, Mark Heinrich, Peter Graff)

UN Gaza relief chief called in by bosses after comments over Israeli air strikes

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – The Gaza director of the U.N. agency that deals with Palestinian refugees has been called in for consultation with his bosses in Jerusalem after angering Palestinians with comments they said favored Israel during last month’s fighting.

Protests have erupted in the territory over the comments by UNRWA Gaza chief Matthias Schmale in an interview with Israel’s N12 television on May 22, in which he said he did not dispute Israel’s assertion that its air strikes were “precise.”

Eleven days of conflict between Israel and Hamas erupted on May 10. More than 250 Palestinians were killed in hundreds of Israeli air strikes in Gaza. More than 4,000 rockets, many intercepted, fired by Gaza militants killed 13 people in Israel.

Hamas, the Islamist militant group that rules the enclave has ridiculed him as “a spokesman for the Israeli military,” Schmale, based in Gaza, has apologized for his remarks in which he was commenting on the ferocity of the air strikes and said: “… precision was there but there was unacceptable and unbearable loss of life on the civilian side.”

Sami Mshasha, UNRWA’s spokesman in Jerusalem, said on Wednesday Schmale and his deputy had been “called in for consultation and discussion at the Jerusalem headquarters over the latest developments in Gaza.”

Another official told Reuters that Deputy Commissioner-General Leni Stenseth would temporarily lead the Gaza team.

UNRWA provides education, health and relief services to around 5.7 million Palestinian registered refugees in Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.

“In the coming few weeks, UNRWA will review the emergency response mechanism in Gaza to determine lessons and conclusions to improve UNRWA’s response and performance during times of crisis and emergency,” Mshasha said in a statement.

In a statement on May 25, Schmale said in apology: “There is no justification whatsoever for killing civilians.” He said: “Military precision and sophistication are never a justification for war.”

Israel’s foreign ministry has said its forces acted “in accordance with international law, in defending our citizens from Hamas’ indiscriminate rocket fire.”

(Writing by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Stephen Farrell, Maayan Lubell and Alison Williams)

U.S. senator expects U.S. to send more funds for Israel’s ‘Iron Dome’

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A senior U.S. senator said on Tuesday he expected Washington would quickly authorize as much as $1 billion for Israel to replenish its Iron Dome missile defense system after clashes in May with Hamas.

“There will be a $1 billion request coming to the Pentagon this week from the (Israeli) defense minister to replenish the Iron Dome and a few other things, to upgrade the system,” Senator Lindsey Graham told reporters in Jerusalem.

A senior Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, Graham met with both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz during a trip to Israel. The committee oversees spending including foreign military aid.

Graham said Iron Dome had saved thousands of lives during last month’s rocket attacks, and predicted Israel’s request would find favor with both President Joe Biden and Congress, which is narrowly controlled by Biden’s Democrats.

“There’s been a big dustup over the last engagement between Hamas and the State of Israel in the United States, but I’m here to tell you that there’s a wide and deep support for Israel among the Democratic Party,” Graham said.

Biden has said he would replenish Iron Dome, which helped Israel fend off most of the more than 4300 rockets fired from Gaza during the conflict.

Israel and Hamas began a ceasefire on May 21 after 11 days of the fiercest Israeli-Palestinian hostilities in years, with nearly 250 people dead, all but 13 of them Palestinians.

Israel’s fierce response drew criticism from some Democrats, but Israel generally enjoys strong support in Washington from both parties. Congress routinely approves large sums on military funding for a country seen as a solid U.S. partner in an unstable region.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said Gantz would meet with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan on Thursday in Washington for a discussion on issues including Iran and military aid.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; Editing by Howard Goller)

Lebanon Hezbollah chief says attacks on Jerusalem mean regional war

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Tuesday any aggression against Jerusalem or its holy sites would mean regional war.

Nasrallah’s comments, in a televised speech, were his first since a ceasefire ended the fiercest fighting in years between Israel and Gaza-based Islamist militant group Hamas.

The Israel-Hamas hostilities were set off on May 10 in part by Israeli police raids on the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City and clashes with Palestinians during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“When holy sites face serious threats there are no red lines,” Nasrallah said. “All the resistance movements can’t sit back and watch if holy sites are in danger.”

The Iranian-backed Lebanese group is a staunch opponent of Israel and Nasrallah’s speech marked the commemoration of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Nasrallah also said that the fighting showed Hamas had greatly advanced its rocket capabilities, which he said was a big military achievement.

“They had the ability to launch rockets for 11 days and they could continue,” he said.

(Reporting By Laila Bassam and Maha El Dahan; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Blinken announces U.S. aid to Gaza, pledges to reopen Jerusalem consulate

By Ali Sawafta and Jeffrey Heller

RAMALLAH, West Bank/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged on a Middle East mission on Tuesday that Washington would provide new aid to help rebuild Gaza as part of efforts to bolster a ceasefire between its Hamas Islamist rulers and Israel.

Hoping to reverse a move taken by former President Donald Trump that angered Palestinians, Blinken said the United States would advance the process of re-opening the Jerusalem consulate that had served as its diplomatic channel to the Palestinians.

Speaking alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Blinken said the United States would provide an additional $75 million in development and economic aid to the Palestinians in 2021, $5.5 million in immediate disaster relief for Gaza and $32 million to U.N. Palestinian aid agency.

But Blinken reiterated that Washington intended to ensure that Hamas, which it regards as a terrorist organization, did not benefit from the humanitarian aid – a potentially difficult task in an enclave over which it has a strong grip.

Blinken began his regional visit in Jerusalem, where he held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader, speaking to reporters with the top U.S. diplomat at his side, threatened a “very powerful response” if Hamas renewed cross-border rocket strikes.

The truce, brokered by Egypt and coordinated with the United States, began on Friday after 11 days of the worst fighting between Palestinian militants and Israel in years. Now in its fifth day, it has been holding.

“We know that to prevent a return to violence we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges,” Blinken said.

“And that begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild.”

Blinken will be in the region through Thursday, and will also travel to Egypt and Jordan. In tandem with his visit, Israeli authorities allowed fuel, medicine and food earmarked for Gaza’s private sector to enter the territory for the first time since the hostilities began on May 10.

Blinken said re-opening the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem would be “an important way for our country to engage with and provide support to the Palestinian people”.

The Trump administration merged the consulate with the U.S. Embassy in Israel in 2019, two years after recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and later moving the embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Those moves broke with long-standing U.S. policy and infuriated Palestinians, who seek East Jerusalem as capital of future state.

Israel deems all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, as its undivided capital.

Biden has no plans to reverse the embassy relocation but has moved in the early months of his term to repair relations with Palestinians. In April, Biden restored hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian aid cut by Trump.

Speaking alongside Blinken, Abbas thanked the U.S. “for its commitment to the two-state solution (and maintaining) the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif,” a Jerusalem compound holy to Muslims and Jews that contains Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.

Abbas also thanked Blinken for what he called American support “for the preservation of (Palestinian) residents of … Sheikh Jarrah,” an East Jerusalem neighborhood where the potential evictions of Palestinian families helped spark the Israel-Gaza fighting.

TWO STATES

Negotiations between Israel and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank, collapsed in 2014.

While Biden has said a two-state solution was the only answer to resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, U.S. officials have suggested it was too early for wider peace talks.

Israel is in political flux after four inconclusive elections in two years, and the Palestinians are divided by enmity between Hamas and Abbas, who holds sway in the West Bank.

Blinken said he and Netanyahu discussed “other steps” that need to be taken by leaders on both sides to set “a better course” for Israelis and Palestinians.

“As President Biden said, we believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and democracy, to be treated with dignity,” Blinken said.

At least 254 people were killed in Gaza and more than 1,900 wounded, Palestinian health authorities said, during the fighting that saw hundreds of Israeli air strikes.

The Israeli military put the death toll in Israel at 13, with hundreds treated for injuries after rocket salvoes caused panic and sent people as far away as Tel Aviv rushing into shelters.

Commercial buildings, residential towers and private houses across the Gaza Strip, where two million people live, were damaged or destroyed by the time the ceasefire was announced.

In Gaza, Palestinian officials estimated reconstruction costs at tens of millions of dollars. Israel has blockaded the territory since 2007, in what Palestinians condemn as collective punishment. Egypt also maintains restrictions on its border with Gaza. Both countries cite security concerns for the measures.

Israel says air strikes hit legitimate military targets and that it did its utmost to avoid civilian casualties, including giving prior warnings when it was about to strike residential buildings that it said also had a military use.

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by William Maclean)

Israel-Gaza conflict rages on despite U.S., regional diplomacy

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Rami Ayyub

GAZA/TEL AVIV (Reuters) -Israel pummeled Gaza with air strikes on Monday and Palestinian militants launched rockets at Israeli cities despite a flurry of U.S. and regional diplomacy that has so far failed to halt more than a week of deadly fighting.

Israel’s missile attacks on the densely populated Palestinian enclave killed a top Islamic Jihad commander and left a crater in a seven-storey office building that Israel’s military said was used by Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas.

Rocket barrages, some of them launched in response to the killing of Islamic Jihad’s Hussam Abu Harbeed, sent Israelis dashing for bomb shelters with direct hits on a synagogue in Ashkelon and an apartment building in Ashdod.

With the fiercest regional hostilities in years showing no sign of abating, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged all sides to protect civilians. Washington, Egypt and U.N. mediators stepped up diplomatic efforts, and the U.N. General Assembly will meet to discuss the violence on Thursday.

Gaza health officials put the Palestinian death toll since hostilities flared up last week at at least 204, including 58 children and 34 women. Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children.

The cross-border hostilities have been accompanied by an uptick of violence in the occupied West Bank, and by riots involving Arab and Jewish mobs within Israel and clashes in Jewish-Arab communities. Police said an Israeli man died in hospital on Monday after being attacked by Arab rioters last week.

As Islamic Jihad mourned Harbeed’s death, Israel’s military said he had been “behind several anti-tank missile terror attacks against Israeli civilians”, and an Israeli general said his country could carry on the fight “forever”.

At least seven Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza on Monday by evening. Two died in the missile attack on the office building, which Israel’s military said was used by Hamas internal security.

“My children couldn’t sleep all night even after the wave of intensive bombing stopped,” said Umm Naeem, 50, a mother of five, as she shopped for bread in Gaza City.

Militant groups in Gaza also gave no sign that an end to fighting was imminent. Rocket sirens blared into the evening, and medics said seven people had been injured in a rocket strike in Ashdod.

Earlier on Monday, Israel bombed what its military called 15 km (nine miles) of underground tunnels used by Hamas. Nine residences belonging to high-ranking Hamas commanders in Gaza were also hit, it said.

“We have to continue the war until there is long-term ceasefire – (one) that is not temporary,” Osher Bugam, a resident of the Israel coastal city of Ashkelon, said after a rocket fired from Gaza hit a synagogue there.

‘WORKING AROUND THE CLOCK’

Hamas began its rocket assault last Monday after weeks of tensions over a court case to evict several Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near the city’s al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Palestinians have also become frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state and an end to Israeli occupation in recent years.

World concern deepened after an Israeli air strike in Gaza that destroyed several homes on Sunday and which Palestinian health officials said killed 42 people, including 10 children, and persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s envoy to the region, Hady Amr, met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Monday. Blinken said U.S. officials had been “working around the clock” to bring an end to the conflict.

“The United States remains greatly concerned by the escalating violence. Hundreds of people killed or injured, including children being pulled from the rubble,” he said after talks with Denmark’s foreign minister in Copenhagen.

Despite the flurry of U.S. mediation, Biden’s administration approved the potential sale of $735 million in precision-guided weapons to its top ally Israel, and Congressional sources said on Monday that U.S. lawmakers were not expected to object to the deal despite the violence.

Blinken and other top U.S. officials put in calls to leaders in Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates on Monday.

While the devastation in Gaza was likely to make it harder for Israel to expand its ties with Arab countries, Gulf states that invested in opening ties with Israel last year are showing no public sign of second thoughts.

Brigadier General Yaron Rosen, a former Israeli air division commander, gave no indication on Monday there would be a let-up in attacks in what he called a “war of attrition”.

“The IDF (Israeli military) can go with this forever. And they (Hamas) can go on with their rockets, sadly, also for a very long time. But the price they are paying is rising higher and higher,” he told reporters.

The Israeli military said at least 130 Palestinian combatants had been killed since fighting began.

Diplomatic efforts are complicated by the fact the United States and most western powers do not talk to Hamas, which they regard as a terrorist organization.

Abbas, whose power base is in the occupied West Bank, exerts little influence over Hamas in Gaza.

Tensions have surged between Israel’s Jewish majority and 21% Arab minority in what the country’s president has warned could devolve into “civil war”.

General strikes over Israel’s Gaza bombardment were planned for Tuesday in Arab towns within Israel and Palestinian towns in the West Bank.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Michelle Nichols in New York, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Angus MacSwan, Peter Graff and Hugh Lawson)

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)

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)