News World Middle East Toll rises as Israel-Gaza violence spirals

Toll rises as Israel-Gaza violence spirals

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Hostilities between Israel and Hamas have escalated overnight, with 35 Palestinians killed in Gaza and three in Israel in the most intensive aerial exchanges for years.

Israel carried out hundreds of air strikes in Gaza into the early hours of Wednesday (local time), as the Islamist group and other Palestinian militant groups fired multiple rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and Beersheba.

One multi-storey residential building in Gaza collapsed and another was heavily damaged after they were repeatedly hit by Israeli air strikes. Israel said it attacked Hamas targets, including intelligence centres and rocket launch sites.

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.”

Into early Wednesday, Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with Israeli attacks, outgoing rockets and Israeli air defence missiles intercepting them.

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

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.

In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens were heard around the city. For Israel, the militants’ targeting of Tel Aviv posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamist Hamas group.

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.

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.

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”.

Hours earlier, Israel had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza and massed tanks on the border as rocket barrages hit Israeli towns for a second day, deepening a conflict in which at least 28 people in the Palestinian enclave and two in Israel have been killed.

Residents of the block and people living nearby had been warned to leave the area about an hour before the air strike, according to witnesses.

It was not immediately clear if the building had been fully evacuated or if there were casualties.

The most serious outbreak of fighting since 2019 between Israel and armed factions in Gaza was triggered by clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque on Monday.

The holy city of Jerusalem has been tense during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with the threat of a court ruling evicting Palestinians from homes claimed by Jewish settlers adding to the friction.

The White House said 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.

Israel said it had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza, and dispatched infantry and armour to reinforce the tanks already at the border.

Video on Tuesday showed three plumes of thick, black smoke rising from a 13-storey Gaza residential and office block as it toppled over after being demolished by Israeli air strikes.

The Israeli military said the building, in Gaza City’s Rimal neighbourhood, housed “multiple” Hamas offices.

A second residential and office building in the same neighbourhood was heavily damaged in Israeli attacks shortly before 2am on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Gaza health ministry officials put the death toll at 32, but a Hamas-affiliated radio station later said three more people, including a woman and a child, were killed shortly before 2am on Wednesday in an Israeli air strike on an apartment above a restaurant.

Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, and that two women had been killed in rocket strikes on Ashkelon.

– AAP