Israeli bombardment of Gaza Strip intensifies, fighting spills into West Bank
Israel fortifies its border, calls up 9,000 reservists as airstrikes target Palestinian militant groups
Israel intensified bombardment of the Gaza Strip on Friday with a furious overnight barrage of tank fire and airstrikes that wreaked destruction in some towns, killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands of civilians fleeing their homes.
Turmoil from the fighting has spilled over into the West Bank, sparking the most-widespread Israeli-Arab protests in years as hundreds of young demonstrators in multiple towns clashed with Israeli troops, who shot and killed at least 11 people.
The Israeli military said the operation involved 160 warplanes dropping some 80 tons of explosives over the course of 40 minutes and succeeded in destroying a network of tunnels used by Palestinian militant groups to elude airstrikes and surveillance.
Since Monday night, Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, which has pounded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes.
In Gaza, at least 126 people have been killed, including 31 children and 20 women, Gaza officials said.
Israeli authorities said seven people in Israel have been killed in the fighting, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.
Houda Ouda said she and her extended family ran frantically into their home in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, seeking safety as the earth shook in the darkness.
"We even did not dare to look from the window to know what is being hit," she said. When daylight came, she saw the destruction: streets cratered, buildings crushed or with facades blown off, an olive tree burned bare, dust covering everything.
The conflict, which was sparked by tensions in Jerusalem during the past month, has reverberated widely. Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations have seen daily violence, with mobs from each community clashing and trashing each other's property. New clashes broke out Friday in the coastal city of Acre.
New wave of unrest in the West Bank
In the barricaded West Bank, on the outskirts of Ramallah, Nablus and other towns and cities, hundreds of Palestinians protested against the Gaza campaign and Israeli actions in Jerusalem. Waving Palestinian flags, they trucked in tires that they set up in burning barricades and hurled stones at Israeli soldiers.
At least 10 protesters were shot and killed by soldiers. An 11th Palestinian was killed when he tried to stab a soldier at a military position.
In East Jerusalem, online video showed young Jewish nationalists firing pistols as they traded volleys of stone with Israeli Arabs in Sheikh Jarrah, which became a flashpoint for tensions over attempts by settlers to forcibly evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes.
On Israel's northern border, troops opened fire when a group of Lebanese and Palestinian protesters on the other side cut through the border fence and briefly crossed. One Lebanese person was killed. Three rockets were fired toward Israel from neighbouring Syria, but they either landed in Syrian territory or in empty areas, Israeli media said. It was not immediately known who fired them.
Fears of a new uprising
The spiraling violence has raised fears of a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, at a time when the peace process has been virtually nonexistent for years.
The tensions began in East Jerusalem earlier this month, with Palestinian protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, part of a holy site in Jerusalem's Old City revered by both Muslims and Jews.
Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital while Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, to be the capital of their future state.
Palestinian militant group Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday in an apparent attempt to present itself as the champion of the protesters.
The conflict spiraled from there.
Israel says it wants to inflict as much damage as it can on Hamas's military infrastructure in Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Hamas would "pay a very heavy price" for its rocket attacks. Israel called up 9,000 reservists Thursday to join its troops massed at the Gaza border.
An Egyptian intelligence official said Israel had turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year ceasefire that Hamas had accepted. The official, who was close to Egypt's talks with both sides, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal negotiations.
U.S. attempt to de-escalate the tension
On Friday, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel-Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, arrived in Israel as part of an attempt by Washington to de-escalate the conflict.
U.S. President Joe Biden gave a show of support to Netanyahu in a call a day earlier, saying "there has not been a significant overreaction" in Israel's response to Palestinian militants' rockets. He said the aim is to get a "significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks."
Hamas has fired around 2,000 rockets toward Israel since Monday, according to the Israeli military. Most have been intercepted by anti-missile defences, but they have brought life to a standstill in southern Israeli cities, caused disruptions at airports and have set off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
WATCH | The view from the ground in Gaza and Israel:
Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, age 7 and under, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced their four-storey apartment building to rubble in the town of Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, residents said. Four strikes hit the building, Tanani's brother Fadi said. The building's owner and his wife also were killed.
"It was a massacre," said Sadallah Tanani, another relative. "My feelings are indescribable."
When the sun rose Friday, residents streamed out of the area in pickup trucks, on donkeys and on foot, taking pillows, blankets, pots and pans and bread. Thousands took shelter inside 16 schools run by the United Nations Relief Agency (UNWRA), agency spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said.
Mohammed Ghabayen, who took refuge in a school with his family, said his children had eaten nothing since the day before and they had no mattresses to sleep on.
"And this is in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis," he said. "We don't know whether to take precautions for the coronavirus or the rockets or what to do exactly."
Israel aims to destroy tunnel network
Israeli military officials said the operation was a successful blow against the tunnel network. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said 160 warplanes operated in a "synchronized manner" for about 40 minutes as part of the operation.
He said the military aims to minimize collateral damage in striking military targets but that measures the military takes in other strikes, such as warning shots to get civilians to leave, were not "feasible this time."
WATCH | Threat of war grows in the Middle East:
Military correspondents in Israeli media said the military believed dozens of militants were killed inside the tunnels. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, but the Israeli military said the real number is far higher.
"We turned the tunnels, which they thought were death traps for our soldiers, into traps for them." Reserve Air Force Col. Koby Regev said on Israeli television.
- 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 12:27 PM ET