Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Tuesday, raising the death toll in two days to 32 Palestinians and three people in Israel, with Israel carrying out multiple air strikes in Gaza and the militant group firing rockets at Tel Aviv.
A 13-story residential building in Gaza collapsed after it was hit by an Israeli air strike, one of hundreds that Israel said it had carried out against Hamas targets.
They were the most intensive aerial exchanges between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in Gaza, and prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.
U.N. 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.
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“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.
Into the early hours of Wednesday morning, Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with Israeli attacks, outgoing rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Israeli air defence missiles intercepting them.
Israelis ran for shelters or flattened themselves on pavements in communities more than 70 km (45 miles) up the coast amid sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.
In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens were heard around the city. 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.
‘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.
“We are at the height of a weighty campaign,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks.
“Hamas and Islamic Jihad paid … and will pay a very heavy price for their belligerence.”
Hamas – seeking the opportunity to marginalise 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 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 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. read more
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. read more State Department spokesman Ned Price urged calm and “restraint on both sides”, saying: “The loss of life, the loss of Israeli life, the loss of Palestinian life, It’s something that we deeply regret.”
He added: “We are urging this message of de-escalation to see this loss of life come to an end.”