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35 Palestinians killed in Gaza as Israel targets Hamas with airstrikes; rockets kill 5 in Israel

Israel on Tuesday stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, flattening a highrise building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at least three militants in their hideouts as Palestinian rockets rained down almost nonstop on parts of Israel.

Israeli prime minister warns Hamas will pay 'heavy price' as fighting shows no sign of slowing

Israeli medics evacuate a wounded man after a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit the central Israeli town of Holon, near Tel Aviv, on Tuesday. (Avshalom Sassoni/The Associated Press)

Israel on Tuesday stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, flattening a highrise building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at least three militants in their hideouts as Palestinian rockets rained down almost nonstop on parts of Israel.

It was the heaviest fighting between the two bitter enemies since 2014, and it showed no signs of slowing.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to expand the offensive, while Gaza militants unleashed a fierce late-night barrage of rockets that set off air-raid sirens and explosions throughout the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

Just after daybreak Wednesday, Israel unleashed dozens of airstrikes in the course of a few minutes, targeting police and security installations, witnesses said. A wall of dark grey smoke rose over Gaza City.

Five Israelis, including three women and a child, were killed by rocket fire Tuesday and early Wednesday, and dozens of people wounded. 

The death toll in Gaza rose to 35 Palestinians, including 10 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. More than 200 people were wounded.

An Israeli firefighter extinguishes a burning car after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in Holon on Tuesday. (Avshalom Sassoni/The Associated Press)

In the West Bank, a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli troops that entered al-Fawar refugee camp in southern Hebron, the ministry said.

The booms of Israeli airstrikes and hisses of outgoing rocket fire could be heard in Gaza throughout the day, and large plumes of smoke from targeted buildings rose into the air. Israel resumed a policy of airstrikes aimed at killing wanted militants and began to take down entire buildings — a tactic that drew heavy international criticism in 2014.

In Israel, the nonstop barrages of rocket fire left long streaks of white smoke in their wake while the explosions of anti-rocket interceptors boomed overhead. Air-raid sirens wailed throughout the day, sending panicked residents scurrying for cover.

WATCH | Palestinian militants fire hundreds of missiles at Israel after Gaza strikes:

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In a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said that Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant groups "have paid, and I tell you here, will pay a heavy price for their aggression."

He claimed that Israel had killed dozens of militants and inflicted heavy damage on hundreds of targets.

"This campaign will take time," he said. "With determination, unity and strength, we will restore security to the citizens of Israel."

Hamas said it launched a total of 130 rockets, its most intense strike so far, in response to Israel's destruction of the highrise. As the rockets rose into the skies, mosques across Gaza blared with chants of "God is great," "victory to Islam" and "resistance."

One rocket struck a bus in the central Israeli city of Holon, just south of Tel Aviv. Medics said three people, including a five-year-old girl, were wounded and the bus went up in flames.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said one of the women killed in Israel from Gaza rocket attacks was an Indian national working as a caregiver, not an Israeli as had been reported previously.

Troop reinforcements for Gaza border

Even before the Israeli deaths, the Israeli military said it was sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border, and the defence minister ordered the mobilization of 5,000 reserve soldiers.

Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesperson, told reporters that Israel was beefing up defensive forces on the border to prevent possible infiltrations and increasing its offensive forces as well, primarily in the air.

He said the objective was to send a "clear message" to Hamas.

Palestinians evacuate a building targeted by Israeli bombardment in Gaza City on Tuesday. (Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty Images)

The barrage of rockets and airstrikes was preceded by hours of clashes on Monday between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, including dramatic confrontations at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, part of a holy site in Jerusalem's Old City revered by both Muslims and Jews.

The current violence, like previous rounds — including the last intifada, or uprising — has been fuelled by conflicting claims over Jerusalem, which is at the emotional core of the long conflict.

In a televised address, Hamas's exiled leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel bore responsibility. "It's the Israeli occupation that set Jerusalem on fire, and the flames reached Gaza," he said.

Palestinian health officials gave no breakdown on the death toll in Gaza, but Islamic Jihad confirmed that three senior commanders were killed in a strike on their hideout in a Gaza City apartment building. The Health Ministry said 10 children and a woman were also killed.

Overnight demonstrations

In a sign of widening unrest, hundreds of residents of Arab communities across Israel staged overnight demonstrations — denouncing the recent actions of Israeli security forces against Palestinians — in one of the largest protests by Palestinian citizens in Israel in recent years.

In the central Israeli town of Lod, police fired tear gas and stun grenades after mourners threw rocks at officers during the funeral of an Arab man allegedly shot to death by a Jewish resident the night before. Thousands took part in the funeral, and police said the crowd set fire to a patrol car, a bus and a motorcycle. Two police officers were injured.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since the militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007. Recent rounds of fighting have usually ended after a few days, often helped by mediation by Qatar, Egypt and others.

People look at cars torched after a night of violence between Israeli Arab protesters and Israeli police in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, central Israel, on Tuesday. (Heidi Levine/The Associated Press)

Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes, including one that demolished a 12-storey building in Gaza City that housed the offices of top Hamas officials. Israeli drones fired a series of warning shots at the roof to give people time to leave the building before it was destroyed. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

At midday, an airstrike hit an apartment building in central Gaza City, sending terrified residents running into the street, including women and barefoot children. The Islamic Jihad militant group confirmed that the strike killed three of its commanders.

An earlier airstrike struck another highrise in the city as people were conducting dawn prayers, killing a woman, her 19-year-old disabled son and another man, residents said. Health officials confirmed the deaths.

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Political uncertainty

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

Netanyahu has been acting as a caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. He tried and failed to form a coalition government with his hard-line and ultra-Orthodox allies, and the task was handed to his 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, although the rival camps have unanimously expressed support for striking Hamas hard.

An Israeli sapper checks a damaged apartment in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on Tuesday after rockets were fired by Hamas from the Gaza Strip toward Israel overnight. (Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images)

The support of an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is key for the anti-Netanyahu bloc's efforts. But the current tensions might deter the Ra'am party's leader, Mansour Abbas, from joining a coalition for now. The sides have three more weeks to reach a deal.

The current round of violence 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 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 threat of eviction by Jewish settlers.

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