Middle East

Violence escalates between Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups as the UN warns of 'a full-scale war'

Smoke billows from the Hanadi residential tower in Gaza after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike amid the escalating flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Source: Getty

Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza into Wednesday morning, as the Islamist group and other Palestinian militants fired multiple rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and Beersheba.

Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Wednesday, with at least 35 killed in Gaza and five in Israel in the most intensive aerial exchanges for years.

Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza into Wednesday morning, as the Islamist group and other Palestinian militants fired multiple rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and Beersheba.

One multi-story residential building in Gaza collapsed and another was heavily damaged after they were repeatedly hit by Israeli airstrikes.

Israel said its jets had targeted and killed several Hamas intelligence leaders early on Wednesday. Other strikes targeted what the military said were rocket launch sites, Hamas offices and the homes of Hamas leaders.

It was the heaviest offensive between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in Gaza, and prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.

UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland tweeted: "Stop the fire immediately. We're escalating towards a full-scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation.

"The cost of war in Gaza is devastating & is being paid by ordinary people. UN is working w/ all sides to restore calm. Stop the violence now," he wrote.

At least 30 explosions were heard in Gaza within a matter of minutes just after dawn on Wednesday. Outgoing rockets lit up the sky as they were intercepted by Israeli air defence missiles.

Israelis ran for shelters or flattened themselves on pavements in communities more than 70 km up the coast and into southern Israel amid sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky.

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In the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, two people were killed after a rocket hit a vehicle in the area. Lod and other mixed towns have been gripped by angry demonstrations over the Gaza violence and tensions in Jerusalem.

Hamas's armed wing said it fired 210 rockets towards Beersheba and Tel Aviv in response to the bombing of the tower buildings in Gaza City. Israel's military says that around a third of the rockets have fallen short, landing within Gaza.

For Israel, the militants' targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamist Hamas group, regarded as a terrorist organisation 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.

Violence has also flared in the West Bank, where a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli gunfire during stone-throwing clashes in a refugee camp near the city of Hebron.

'A very heavy price'

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.

The outbreak of hostilities led Mr Netanyahu's political opponents to suspend negotiations on forming a coalition of right-wing, leftist and centre-left parties to unseat him after an inconclusive 23 March election.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid has three weeks left to establish a government, with a new election - and another chance for Mr Netanyahu to retain power - likely if he fails.

The Arab League, some of whose members have warmed ties with Israel over the last year, accused it of “indiscriminate and irresponsible” attacks in Gaza and said it was responsible for “dangerous escalation” in Jerusalem.

Palestinian rescuers evacuate an elderly woman from a building following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May. 12, 2021
Palestinian rescuers evacuate an elderly woman from a building following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May. 12, 2021
AP

Hamas named its rocket assault "Sword of Jerusalem", seeking to marginalise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to present itself as the guardians of Palestinians in Jerusalem.

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

Mr 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 had 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 coexistence.

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