Matt Frei 10am - 1pm
Hamas and Israel trade rockets and air strikes as violence spreads
13 May 2021, 23:04
The escalating fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers has echoed – and perhaps even exceeded – their devastating 2014 war.
Hamas has sent a barrage of rockets deep into Israel as the Israelis pounded Gaza with more air strikes and shells and called up 9,000 more reservists who could be used to stage a ground invasion.
The relentless escalation of hostilities came even as Egyptian negotiators held in-person talks with the two sides, intensifying efforts at mediation.
The artillery and tank shells that began falling into Gaza in the evening forced scores of families to flee their homes, Palestinian witnesses said.
The use of artillery fire in Israel’s four-day-old offensive increased the likelihood of civilian casualties.
Previous fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, including a devastating 2014 war, was largely confined to the impoverished and blockaded Palestinian territory and Israeli communities on the frontier.
But this round seems to be rippling farther and wider than at any time since the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising, and is tearing apart the country at its seams.
While some rocket attacks have reached the Tel Aviv area, Arab and Jewish mobs have rampaged through the streets, savagely beating people and torching cars.
Flights have been cancelled or diverted away from the country’s main airport.
Weary Palestinians, meanwhile, sombrely marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Thursday as militants fired one barrage of rockets after another and Israel carried out waves of bone-rattling air strikes.
Since the rockets began on Monday, Israel has toppled three high-rise buildings that it said housed Hamas facilities after warning civilians to evacuate.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll has climbed to 103 Palestinians, including 27 children and 11 women, with 530 people wounded.
The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a six-year-old boy.
Israel says the number of militants dead is much higher.
Seven people have been killed in Israel.
Among them were a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a six-year-old child hit in a rocket attack.
A visit by Egyptian security officials was a significant development in international mediation efforts, which have been key to ending past rounds of fighting.
The officials met first with Hamas leaders in Gaza before holding talks with the Israelis in Tel Aviv, two Egyptian intelligence officials said.
Still, both Israel and Hamas seemed determined to press ahead.
Even as word came of the mediators’ presence, Gaza militants fired a volley of some 100 rockets nearly simultaneously, raising air raid sirens around southern and central Israel.
There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties – but the barrage appeared aimed at demonstrating that Hamas’s arsenal was still full even after three nights of air strikes and the killing on Wednesday of several Hamas leaders involved in the rocket programme.
“The decision to bomb Tel Aviv, Dimona and Jerusalem is easier for us than drinking water,” a spokesman for Hamas’s military wing declared in a video message.
Dimona is the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor.
In another sign fighting could escalate further, Israel’s defence minister approved the mobilisation of 9,000 more reservist troops, and Israel’s military spokesman said forces were massing on the border with the Gaza Strip.
The Defence Ministry said that the latest mobilisation approved by defence minister Benny Gantz was an “exceptional call-up”.
The military’s chief spokesman Brigadier General Hidai Zilberman said forces were “preparing the option of a ground manoeuvre”.
He told Israeli public television station Kan that tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery were being readied “for this option for mobilisation at any given moment”.
But the level of forces was not believed to be strong enough yet for a possible ground invasion.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited batteries of the Iron Dome missile defence system, which the military says has intercepted 90% of the 1,200 rockets that have reached Israel from Gaza so far.
“It will take more time, but with great firmness … we will achieve our goal – to restore peace to the State of Israel,” he said.
The previous evening, Israeli TV reported that Mr Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet authorised a widening of the offensive that the military says has already hit 600 targets in Gaza.
In Gaza, a pall was cast over Eid al-Fitr, the holiday at the end of Ramadan’s month of daily fasting.
It is usually a festive time when families shop for new clothes and gather for large feasts.
Instead, Hamas urged the faithful to mark communal Eid prayers inside their homes or the nearest mosques instead of out in the open, as is traditional.
Hassan Abu Shaaban tried to lighten the mood by passing out sweets to passers-by after prayers, but acknowledged “there is no atmosphere for Eid at all”.
“It is all air strikes, destruction and devastation,” he said. “May God help everyone.”
In Gaza’s southern town of Khan Younis, dozens of mourners marched through the streets carrying the bodies of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old killed when an Israeli air strike hit near their home on Wednesday.
In Israel, rocket fire brought life to a standstill in southern communities near Gaza, but also reached as far north as the Tel Aviv area, about 70 kilometres (45 miles) away, for a second straight day.
Israel diverted some incoming flights from Ben Gurion International Airport, near the city, to the Ramon airfield in the country’s far south, the Transportation Ministry said. Several flights have also been cancelled.
Hamas said it fired its most powerful rocket, the Ayyash, towards Ramon, 180 kilometres (110 miles) from Gaza.
The rocket landed in a desert area, and no air raid sirens sounded, Israeli media reported.
Still, flights were briefly suspended at the airport, with several planes left circling before landings and take-offs were resumed, according to tracking websites.
“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.”
UN secretary-general Antonio Guterres condemned the “indiscriminate launching of rockets” from civilian areas in Gaza towards Israeli population centres, but he also urged Israel to show “maximum restraint”.