Rockets fired from Lebanon as Israel expands airstrikes and ceasefire efforts intensify
U.S. President Joe Biden calls for 'significant de-escalation' of ongoing conflict
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed Wednesday to press ahead with a fierce military offensive in the Gaza Strip, pushing back against calls from the United States to wind down the operation that has left hundreds dead.
Netanyahu's tough comments marked the first public rift between the two close allies since the fighting began last week and could complicate international efforts to reach a ceasefire. His pushback also plunges the pair into a difficult early test of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Israel continued to pound targets in Gaza with airstrikes Wednesday, while Palestinian militants bombarded Israel with rocket fire throughout the day.
In another sign of potential escalation, militants in Lebanon fired a barrage of rockets into northern Israel.
After a visit to military headquarters, Netanyahu said he appreciated "the support of the American president," but he said Israel would push ahead to return "calm and security" to Israeli citizens.
He said he was "determined to continue this operation until its aim is met."
He spoke shortly after U.S. President Joe Biden told Netanyahu, according to the White House, that "he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire."
Biden had previously avoided pressing Israel more directly and publicly for a ceasefire with Gaza's Hamas militant rulers.
But pressure has been ramping up on Biden to intervene more forcefully as other diplomatic efforts gather strength.
Egyptian negotiators have also been working to halt the fighting, and an Egyptian diplomat said top officials were waiting for Israel's response to a ceasefire offer. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a top Hamas official, told the Lebanese station Mayadeen TV that he expected a ceasefire in a day or two.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he would fly to the region on Thursday for talks with Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel's Foreign Ministry said the foreign ministers of Slovakia and the Czech Republic would also arrive in Israel on Thursday, and that the diplomats were invited by Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi "to express their solidarity and support" for Israel.
Airstrikes, rocket launches continue
Earlier in the day, the Israeli military said it was widening its strikes on militant targets in southern Gaza to blunt continuing rocket fire from Hamas.
At least nine people were killed Wednesday in the Gaza Strip.
The current round of fighting between Israel and Hamas began May 10, when the militant group fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police. A focal point of the clashes was the Al-Aqsa Mosque, part of a holy site in Jerusalem's Old City revered by both Muslims and Jews.
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Police tactics at the compound and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers had inflamed tensions.
Since then, Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes that it says have targeted Hamas's infrastructure, and Hamas and other militant groups embedded in residential areas have fired some 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities, with hundreds falling short and most of the rest intercepted or landing in open areas.
At least 227 Palestinians have been killed, including 64 children and 38 women, with 1,620 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians.
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Hamas and Islamic Jihad say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is at least 130. Some 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes.
Twelve people in Israel, including a five-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a soldier, have been killed.
Rockets launched from Lebanon
The rockets fired by militants in Lebanon into northern Israel threatened to open up a new front in the fighting.
The rocket attack, which drew Israeli artillery fire in response but did not cause any injuries, raised the possibility of dragging Israel into renewed conflict with the powerful Lebanese militant group Hezbollah to its north.
No one immediately claimed responsibility for the attack, and Hezbollah, which fought a month-long war against Israel in 2006, has stayed out of the fighting for now.
The rockets were widely believed to be fired by Palestinian factions based in south Lebanon.
But they cannot operate without Hezbollah's tacit consent, and the barrage appears to be carefully calibrated to send a political message that the group, which has tens of thousands of missiles, could join the battle at any time.
Israel considers Hezbollah to be its most formidable threat, and has threatened widespread destruction in Lebanon if war were to erupt.
Family home destroyed
In Gaza, one of the Israeli airstrikes destroyed the home of an extended family.
Residents surveyed the piles of bricks, concrete and other debris that had once been the home of 40 members of the al-Astal family in the southern Gaza town of Khan Younis.
They said a warning missile struck the building five minutes before the airstrike, allowing everyone to escape.
Ahmed al-Astal, a university professor, described a scene of panic, with men, women and children racing out of the building.
"We had just gotten down to the street, breathless, when the devastating bombardment came," he said. "They left nothing but destruction, the children's cries filling the street. ... This is happening, and there is no one to help us."
Parents, child among dead
Another strike in nearby Deir al-Balah killed a man, his wife and their two-year-old daughter, witnesses said.
Iyad Salha, a brother of the man who was killed, said the family had just sat down for lunch when the missile hit.
Among those killed Wednesday were a reporter for Hamas-run Al-Aqsa radio and two people who died when warning missiles crashed into their apartment.
The Israeli military said it was striking a militant tunnel network in southern Gaza, with 52 aircraft hitting 40 underground targets.
Military officials, meanwhile, said a mysterious explosion that killed eight members of a Palestinian family on the first day of the fighting was caused by a misfired rocket from Gaza.
Since the fighting began, Gaza's infrastructure, already weakened by a 14-year blockade, has rapidly deteriorated. Medical supplies, water and fuel for electricity are running low in the territory, on which Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized power in 2007.
Israeli attacks have damaged at least 18 hospitals and clinics and destroyed one health facility, the World Health Organization said. Nearly half of all essential drugs have run out.
The Gaza Health Ministry said it had salvaged coronavirus vaccines after shrapnel from an Israeli airstrike damaged the territory's only testing facility, which also administered hundreds of vaccines. The operations were relocated to another clinic.
Dr. Majdi Dhair, head of preventive medicine at the ministry, said the territory was already struggling to recover from a coronavirus wave that hit in February, with more than 4,200 active cases.
At least 986 people have died from COVID-19 in Gaza, which only has enough supplies to vaccinate some 55,000 people out of a population of two million.
- A previous version of this story said the Al-Aqsa Mosque is revered by both Muslims and Jews. In fact, the mosque is built on a hilltop site sacred to Muslims and Jews.May 20, 2021 11:48 AM ET