Escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians bears hallmarks of 2014 Gaza war
Latest eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem
Israel hit three multi-storey towers as it hammered the Gaza Strip with airstrikes on Wednesday, and militants in the territory fired barrages of rockets at Israel, in the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 Gaza war, with no resolution in sight.
The fighting has taken on many hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict between Israel and Hamas, but with a startling new factor: large, heated protests by Israeli Arabs in support of those living in the territories as well as counter-violence by Jewish Israelis.
Israel deployed border guards in two mixed Arab-Jewish cities that saw unrest in previous days, including the burning of a Jewish-owned restaurant and a synagogue, the fatal shooting of an Arab man and attacks on Arab-owned cars. It was a rare use of the paramilitary force, which normally puts down protests by Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Palls of grey smoke rose in Gaza, as Israeli airstrikes struck apartment towers and hammered multiple Hamas security installations. In Israel, hundreds of rockets fired by Gaza's Hamas rulers and other militants at times overwhelmed missile defences and brought air raid sirens and explosions echoing across Tel Aviv, Israel's biggest metropolitan area, and other cities.
The death toll in Gaza rose to 69 Palestinians, including 16 children and six women, according to the Health Ministry. The militant group Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of seven of its members while Hamas acknowledged that a top commander and several other members were killed.
A total of seven people have been killed in Israel, including four people who died on Wednesday. Among them were a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a six-year-old child hit in a rocket attack.
The Israeli military claims the number of militants killed so far is much higher than Hamas has acknowledged.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesperson, said at least 14 militants were killed Wednesday — including 10 members of the "top management of Hamas" and four weapons experts. Altogether, he claimed about 30 militants have been killed since the fighting began.
'Nowhere to hide'
At nightfall Wednesday, the streets of Gaza City resembled a ghost town as people huddled indoors on the final night of Ramadan. The evening, followed by the Eid al-Fitr holiday, is usually a time of vibrant night life, shopping and crowded restaurants.
"There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide," said Zeyad Khattab, a 44-year-old pharmacist who fled with a dozen other relatives to a family home in central Gaza after bombs pounded his apartment building in Gaza City.
"That terror is impossible to describe."
Gaza militants continued to bombard Israel with nonstop rocket fire throughout the day and into early Thursday morning. The attacks brought life to a standstill in southern communities near Gaza but also reached as far north as the Tel Aviv area, about 70 kilometres to the north, for a second straight day.
The military said sirens also wailed in northern Israel's Migdal Ha'Emek area, the farthest the effects of Gaza rockets have reached since 2014.
"We're coping, sitting at home, hoping it will be OK," said Motti Haim, a resident of the central town of Beer Yaakov and father of two children. "It's not simple running to the shelter. It's not easy with the kids."
While United Nations and Egyptian officials have said that ceasefire efforts are underway, there were no signs of progress. Israeli television's Channel 12 reported late Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet authorized a widening of the offensive.
UN chief Antonio Guterres condemned the "indiscriminate launching of rockets" from civilian areas in Gaza toward Israeli population centres, but he also urged Israel to show "maximum restraint."
U.S. President Joe Biden said that "Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory" and that he had spoken with Netanyahu.
"My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later," Biden said.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said he was sending a senior diplomat to the region to try to calm tensions.
Threatened evictions ignited clashes
The latest eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem, where heavy-handed police tactics during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers ignited protests and clashes with police. A focal point was the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, part of a holy site in Jerusalem's Old City revered by both Muslims and Jews.
Late Monday, Hamas, saying it was "defending Jerusalem," launched a barrage of rockets at the city, escalating the ground tensions.
The Israeli military says militants have fired well over 1,000 rockets in just three days. That is nearly a quarter of the number fired during the entire 2014 war.
Israel, meanwhile, has struck over 350 targets in Gaza, a tiny territory where two million Palestinians have lived under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007. Two infantry brigades were sent to the area, indicating preparations for a possible ground invasion.
The Jerusalem turmoil and the ensuing violence come at a time when the long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process is virtually non-existent.
It has been seven years since the two sides held formal negotiations. Other issues dominate Israel's political scene, and the peace process was often near the bottom of the priority list when Israelis have voted in a string of recent elections. Arab nations, including several that recently reached normalization deals with Israel, have also made the issue less of a priority.
The result has left the nearly five million Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem living in a limbo.
Border guards deployed
With the deployment of border guards in Lod and the coastal city of Acre, Netanyahu warned he was prepared to use "an iron fist if necessary" to quell the violence.
But ugly clashes erupted across the country late Wednesday. Jewish and Arab mobs battled in the central city of Lod, the epicentre of the troubles, despite a state of emergency and nighttime curfew. In nearby Bat Yam, a mob of Jewish nationalists attacked an Arab motorist, dragged him from his car and beat him until he was motionless.
Still unclear is how the fighting in Gaza will affect Netanyahu's political future. He failed to form a government coalition after inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, and now his political rivals have three weeks to try to form one.
The longer the fighting drags on, the more it could hamper their attempts at a coalition; it could also boost Netanyahu if yet another election is held, since security is his strong suit with the public.
WATCH | Violence escalates between Israel, Palestinian militants:
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces. The conflicts ended after regional and international powers persuaded both sides to accept an informal truce.
Israel faced heavy criticism over the bombing of residential buildings in Gaza during the 2014 war, one of several tactics that are now the subject of an investigation by the International Criminal Court into possible war crimes. Israel is not a member of the court and has rejected the probe.
In a brief statement, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she had noted "with great concern" the escalation of violence and "the possible commission of crimes under the Rome Statute" that established the court.
Conricus, the military spokesperson, said Israeli forces have strict rules of engagement, follow international laws on armed conflict and are trying to minimize civilian casualties.
But Israel has said it has no choice because Hamas fires rockets from residential areas. Hamas has also come under international criticism over its indiscriminate rocket fire at Israeli population centres.