© Reuters. Flames and smoke rise during Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence in the southern Gaza Strip on May 11, 2021. REUTERS / Ibraheem Abu Mustafa
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller
GAZA / JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Hospitality between Israel and Hamas escalated Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 30 Palestinians and three Israelis in two days. Israel carried out several air strikes in Gaza and the militant Islamist group fired rockets at Tel Aviv.
A 13-story Gaza block of flats collapsed after one of several dozen air strikes. Late into the night, Gazans reported that their homes were shaking and the sky was lit with near-constant Israeli strikes.
Israelis ran to communities more than 70 km offshore with the sound of explosions as Israeli interceptor missiles flew into the sky to seek shelter. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.
For Israel, targeting the militants in Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in confronting the Islamist Hamas group, viewed by Israel and the United States as a terrorist organization.
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 the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the site venerated as the Temple Mount by Jews and a Noble Shrine by Muslims.
These escalated in the last few days before a – now postponed – trial on a case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from homes claimed by Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.
There did not seem to be an immediate end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that the militants would pay a “very high” price for the missiles that reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating the conquest of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.
“We are at the height of a weighty campaign,” said Netanyahu on TV views alongside his defense minister and military chief.
“Hamas and Islamic Jihad have paid … and will pay a very high price for their willingness to fight … their blood is decaying.”
Hamas, which was seeking the opportunity to marginalize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and present itself as the guardian of the Palestinians in Jerusalem, said it was up to Israel to take the first step.
The leader of the militant group, Ismail Haniyeh, said in a televised address that Israel “lit the fires in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and spread the flames to Gaza, so it was responsible for the consequences”.
Haniyeh said Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had contacted to request silence, but Hamas’ 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 Tuesday that Israel has a legitimate right to defend itself against missile attacks, but has put pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians and said Jerusalem must be “a place to live together.”
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki opened her daily press conference with a statement on the situation, saying President Joe Biden’s main focus was on de-escalation.
The United States delayed efforts by the UN Security Council to issue a public statement on escalating tensions, as doing so could be detrimental to behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with US strategy.
On condition of anonymity, the source said Washington was “actively involved in behind-the-scenes diplomacy with all parties to reach a ceasefire,” and feared a Council statement at the moment could be counterproductive.
Israel said it sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza and deployed infantry and armaments to reinforce the tanks already assembled at the border, bringing back memories of the last Israeli land incursion into Gaza in 2014 to stop rocket attacks.
According to the Gaza Ministry of Health, more than 2,100 Gazans were killed, along with 73 Israelis, and thousands of houses in Gaza were destroyed in the ensuing seven-week war.
Plums of black smoke
Video footage on Tuesday showed three thick clouds of black smoke rising from the Gaza Strip as it fell over. The electricity in the area went out.
According to witnesses, residents of the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area about an hour before the airstrike, and no casualties were reported two hours after the collapse.
People in other blocks reported having received warnings from Israel to evacuate before a possible attack.
In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens and explosions were heard throughout the city. Pedestrians ran for shelter and diners streamed from the restaurants while others flattened themselves on the sidewalks as the sirens sounded.
The Israel Airport Authority said it had stopped take-offs at Tel Aviv Airport “to allow the nation’s skies to be defended,” but later resumed them.
The video, broadcast on Israeli TV 12, showed interceptor missiles rising over the runways.
The International Committee of the Red Cross called on all sides to resign and reminded them of the obligation under international law to avoid civilian casualties.
“The recent rockets in Israel and air strikes in Gaza represent a dangerous escalation of tension and violence seen in Jerusalem, including the Old City, in recent days,” Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, said in a Explanation.
Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in Tel Aviv’s Rishon Lezion suburb and two women were killed in rocket attacks on the southern city of Ashkelon.
But the Israeli military said many of the rockets fired from Gaza fell short and wounded the Palestinians, and Israeli air defense Iron Dome intercepted most of those who made it across the border.
Violence has also increased in the occupied West Bank.
Israeli forces shot and killed one Palestinian and injured another on Tuesday after shooting at Israeli troops near the Palestinian city of Nablus, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.