Dozens die as Israel intensifies air strikes in Gaza and Hamas militants unleash rockets

13 May 2021, 00:25 | Updated: 13 May 2021, 22:10

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By Patrick Grafton-Green

Israeli air strikes have killed a string of senior Hamas military figures and pounded three multi-storey buildings in the Gaza Strip as militants launched barrages of rockets during another night of escalating violence.

Dozens have died in the most severe outbreak of violence since the 50-day war in 2014, with no resolution in sight and both sides talking up the prospect of a full-scale conflict.

The death toll in Gaza rose to 69 Palestinians by Thursday morning, including 16 children and six women, according to the territory's health ministry.

At least 320 have been wounded, including 86 children and 39 women.

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The Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine confirmed the deaths of seven militants, while Hamas acknowledged that a top commander and several other members were killed.

Seven Israelis have now been killed, including a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a six-year-old child hit in a rocket attack.

Dozens have been wounded in Israel as hundreds of rockets fired by Hamas and other militants at times overwhelmed the country's Iron Dome missile defence system and brought air raid sirens and explosions echoing across Tel Aviv and other cities.

Israel steps up offensive against Gaza

The streets of Gaza City were deserted on Wednesday night as people stayed indoors on the final night of Islam's holiest month of Ramadan.

The evening, followed by the Eid al-Fitr holiday on Thursday, 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."

Meanwhile, thousands in Tel Aviv and other cities in Israel experienced similar rocket fire in their neighbourhoods.

There is no sign either side are willing to back down, with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu authorising the widening of the offensive and militant groups in Gaza calling for an intifada - or uprising.

It comes amid a burst of fury from Israel's Palestinian citizens in support of those living in the territories, countered by violence from Jewish Israelis.

Israel has deployed border guards in two mixed Arab-Jewish cities that has seen unrest in recent 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.

Molotov cocktails are thrown at Jewish right-wing protesters during clashes in the Israeli city of oLd
Molotov cocktails are thrown at Jewish right-wing protesters during clashes in the Israeli city of oLd. Picture: PA

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.

Since Monday, militants have fired more than 1,050 rockets from Gaza, according to the Israeli military.

Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes in the 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.

On Wednesday, Israel's military and internal security agency said they killed the Hamas commander in charge of Gaza City, the highest-ranking Hamas military figure killed by Israel since 2014, and several other senior militants involved in rocket production.

In one of the fiercest attacks, Israel dropped two bombs on a 14-storey building in Gaza City, collapsing it.

The building, located on the city's busiest shopping street in the Roman neighbourhood, housed businesses and offices for Hamas's Al-Aqsa satellite channel.

Air strikes also brought down a 12-storey office building which housed Hamas offices as well as other businesses, and heavily damaged a nine-storey building with residential apartments, medical companies, a dental clinic and, Israel said, Hamas intelligence offices.

In both cases, Israel fired warning shots, allowing people to flee.

Palestinians gather around a damaged building hit by an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis
Palestinians gather around a damaged building hit by an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis. Picture: PA

Soon after, Hamas fired 100 rockets at the Israeli desert town of Beersheba in what it said was retaliation.

Samah Haboub, a mother of four in Gaza, said she was thrown across her bedroom in a "moment of horror" by an air strike on an apartment tower next door.

She and her children, aged three to 14, ran down the stairway of their apartment block along with other residents, many of them screaming and crying.

"There is almost no safe place in Gaza," she said.

In the Israeli city of Lod, a 52-year-old Arab Israeli citizen and his 16-year-old daughter were killed when a rocket from Gaza hit the courtyard of their home.

An Israeli soldier was killed in a strike by an anti-tank missile from Gaza.

The Jerusalem turmoil and the ensuing battle come at a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is virtually non-existent, fuelling Palestinian frustration.

It has been seven years since the two sides held formal negotiations.