Netanyahu says airstrikes on Gaza could ‘continue for some time’

Gaza City: Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza on Tuesday, hitting the high-rise home of a Hamas field commander and two border tunnels dug by militants, as Hamas and other armed groups fired dozens of rockets toward Israel.

Since sundown on Monday (Tuesday AEDT) when the cross-border fighting erupted, 24 Palestinians – including nine children – were killed in Gaza, most by airstrikes, Gaza health officials said. The Israeli military said 15 of the dead were militants. During the same period, Gaza militants fired more than 200 rockets toward Israel, injuring six Israeli civilians.

A mn carries his child to safety as Israel launches airstrikes over the Gaza Strip. Tuesday May 11. Credit:Getty

This was preceded by hours of clashes on Monday between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, mainly in Jerusalem but also across the West Bank. More than 700 Palestinians were hurt, including nearly 500 who were treated at hospitals.

The current violence, like previous rounds, was fuelled by conflicting claims over Jerusalem, home to major holy sites of Islam, Judaism and Christianity. The rival national and religious narratives of Israelis and Palestinians are rooted in the city, making it the emotional core of their long conflict.

In the past, fighting between Israel and Hamas, the group that rules Gaza, would typically end after a few days, often helped by behind-the-scenes mediation by Qatar, Egypt and others. It is not clear if that trajectory will be repeated this time.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Monday that fighting could “continue for some time”. Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters on Tuesday that the military was in “the early stages” of strikes against Gaza targets that it had planned well in advance.

The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.

Netanyahu has been acting as a caretaker Prime Minister since an inconclusive parliament election in March. He tried and failed to form a coalition government with his hardline and ultra-Orthodox allies and the task was handed to his sworn political rivals last week. One of those rivals is Israel’s defence minister who is overseeing the Gaza campaign. It is not clear if and to what extent the toxic political atmosphere is spilling over into military decision-making, though the rival camps have unanimously expressed support for striking Hamas hard.

The tensions in Jerusalem coincided with the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in mid-April. Critics say heavy-handed police measures helped stoke nightly unrest, including a decision to temporarily seal off a popular night-time gathering spot where Palestinian residents would meet after evening prayers. Another flashpoint was the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah where dozens of Palestinians are under treat of eviction by Jewish settlers.

Over the weekend, confrontations erupted at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in east Jerusalem, which was captured and annexed by Israel in the 1967 war. The compound, located in Jerusalem’s Old City, is the third holiest site of Islam and the holiest site of Judaism.

For four successive days, Israel police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs. Hundreds of Palestinians were hurt, requiring treatment at hospitals. Two dozen officers were also injured. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.

On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza, setting off air raid sirens as far as Jerusalem, after giving Israel a deadline to withdraw Israeli security forces from the compound. From there on, the escalation was rapid.

Conricus, the army spokesman, said Gaza militants fired more than 200 rockets at Israel, with about one-third falling short and landing in Gaza.

The army said that a rocket landed a direct hit on a seven-story apartment block in the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon. Photos and videos from the scene showed a large blast hole on the side of the building. Israeli paramedic service Magen David Adom said it treated six people injured in the rocket strike. Two were hospitalised in moderate condition.

Conricus said the military hit 130 targets in Gaza, including the high-rise home of a Hamas field commander and two tunnels that militants were digging under the border with Israel. In all, Israel killed 15 militants, Conricus said, including some tunnel diggers.

He did not address Gaza Health Ministry reports that nine children were among 24 Palestinians killed overnight.

In Gaza, most of the deaths were attributed to airstrikes. However, seven of the deaths were members of a single family, including three children, who died in a mysterious explosion in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. It was not clear if the blast was caused by an Israeli airstrike or errant rocket.

More than 100 Gazans were wounded in the airstrikes, the Health Ministry said.

Palestinians gather near a fire burning next to the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem during clashes between police and Palestinian protesters on Monday, May 10, 2021. Credit:AP

In one sign of escalation, an Israeli missile hit the upper floors of an apartment building in the Shati refugee camp on the edge of Gaza City early Tuesday, killing two men and a woman inside, according to health officials.

The European Union condemned Palestinian rocket attacks into Israel, calling on all sides to aim for a de-escalation and to prevent further civilian casualties.

“The firing of rockets from Gaza against civilian populations in Israel is totally unacceptable and feeds escalatory dynamics,” the European Commission said in a statement issued on Tuesday (AEST).

“The significant upsurge in violence in the occupied West Bank, including in East Jerusalem as well as in and around Gaza needs to stop immediately,” it added.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier condemned the rocket attacks from Gaza against Israel and urged all sides to take steps to reduce tensions.

Israel had struck scores of Gaza homes in its 2014 war with Hamas, arguing it was aiming at militants, but also killing many civilians. The practice drew broad international condemnation at the time.

AP, Reuters

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