Rockets kill two Israelis as 28 killed in Gaza strikes

11 May 2021, 17:04

An Israeli firefighter walks next to cars hit by a missile fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon
Israel Palestinians. Picture: PA

In a further sign of rising tensions, Israel signalled it is widening its military campaign.

A confrontation between Israel and Hamas sparked by weeks of tensions in contested Jerusalem has escalated.

Israel unleashed new air strikes on Gaza, killing a number of militants and civilians, while militants barraged southern Israel with hundreds of rockets, killing two Israelis.

Since sundown on Monday, 28 Palestinians – including 10 children and a woman – were killed in Gaza, most by air strikes, health officials there said.

The Israeli military said at least 16 of the dead were militants.

Two women were killed by rockets fired from Gaza that hit their homes in the southern city of Ashkelon – the first Israeli deaths in the current violence.

At least 10 other Israelis have been wounded since Monday evening.

After those deaths, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said officials decided to “increase both the strength and rate of the strikes” against militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip.

“Hamas will receive blows now that it didn’t expect,” he said.

Egypt was trying to broker a ceasefire, but the cycle of violence was gaining momentum.

Even before the two Israeli deaths, the Israeli military said it was sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border and the defence minister ordered the mobilisation of 5,000 reserve soldiers.

Palestinians search for survivors under the rubble of a destroyed rooftop of a residential building which was hit by Israeli missile strikes, at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City
Palestinians search for survivors at a residential building which was hit by Israeli missile strikes in Gaza City (Khalil Hamra/AP)

The barrage of rockets and air strikes was preceded by hours of clashes on Monday between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, including dramatic confrontations at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a sacred site to both Jews and Muslims.

The current violence, like previous rounds, including the last intifada, or uprising, has been fuelled by conflicting claims over Jerusalem, which is at the emotional core of the long conflict.

In a sign of widening unrest, hundreds of residents of Arab communities across Israel staged overnight demonstrations denouncing the recent actions of Israeli security forces against Palestinians.

It was one of the largest protests by Palestinian citizens in Israel in recent years.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars and numerous skirmishes since the militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007.

Recent rounds of fighting have usually ended after a few days, often helped by behind-the-scenes mediation by Qatar, Egypt and others.

Smoke rises after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City
Smoke rises after an Israeli air strike in Gaza City (Hatem Moussa/AP)

An Egyptian official confirmed that the country was trying to broker a truce.

But the official said Israeli actions in Jerusalem had complicated those efforts.

A Palestinian security official confirmed the ceasefire efforts.

Israel carried out dozens of air strikes, including two that targeted high-rise apartment buildings where militants were believed to be hiding.

At midday, an air strike hit an apartment building in central Gaza City, sending terrified residents running into the street, including women and barefoot children.

The Islamic Jihad militant group confirmed that the strike killed three of its commanders.

A Palestinian man inspects the rubble of a garage destroyed after it was hit by Israeli air strikes, in Gaza City
A Palestinian man inspects the rubble of a garage destroyed after it was hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza City (Adel Hana/AP)

An earlier air strike struck another high-rise in the city as people were conducting dawn prayers, killing a woman, her 19-year-old disabled son and another man, residents said.

Health officials confirmed the deaths.

Ashraf al-Kidra, spokesman for the Gaza Health Ministry, said a total of 28 people, including 10 children and the woman, were killed and 152 people were wounded.

He said Israel’s “relentless assault” was overwhelming the healthcare system, which has been struggling with a Covid-19 outbreak.

The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.

Mr Netanyahu has been caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March.

Israeli soldiers inspect a house damaged by a missile fired from the Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon
Israeli soldiers inspect a house damaged by a missile fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon (Ariel Schalit/AP)

He tried and failed to form a coalition government with his hard-line and ultra-Orthodox allies, and the task was handed to his political rivals last week.

One of those rivals is Israel’s defence minister, who is overseeing the Gaza campaign.

It was not clear whether the toxic political atmosphere is spilling over into military decision-making, though the rival camps have unanimously expressed support for striking Hamas hard.

The support of an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is key for the anti-Netanyahu bloc’s efforts.

But the current tensions might deter the party’s leader, Mansour Abbas, from joining a coalition for now.

The sides have three more weeks to reach a deal.

Rockets are launched from Gaza Strip towards Israel
Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel (Hatem Moussa/AP)

The current round of violence in Jerusalem coincided with the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in mid-April.

Critics say heavy-handed police measures helped stoke nightly unrest, including a decision to temporarily seal off a popular gathering spot where Palestinian residents would meet after evening prayers.

Another flashpoint was the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are under threat of eviction by Jewish settlers.

Over the weekend, confrontations erupted at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, which is the third holiest site of Islam and the holiest site in Judaism.

Over several days, Israel police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs.

At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.

On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza, setting off air raid sirens as far as Jerusalem.

An Israeli firefighter takes cover as rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon
An Israeli firefighter takes cover as a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon (Ariel Schalit/AP)

From there on, the escalation was rapid.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said Gaza militants fired more than 500 rockets at Israel, with about one-third falling short and landing in Gaza.

The rocket fire was so intense that Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defence system appeared to be overwhelmed.

At midday, a barrage of some 10 rockets whizzed above the southern city of Ashdod, filling the skies with streaks of white smoke.

A rocket that hit an apartment building in the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon injured six people, according to Israeli paramedic service Magen David Adom.

A building in Ashdod was also hit, lightly wounding four, Israeli police said.

A Palestinian man inspects the rubble of a partially destroyed residential building after it was hit by Israeli missile strikes, at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City
A Palestinian man inspects the rubble of a partially destroyed residential building after it was hit by Israeli missile strikes, at the Shati refugee camp in Gaza City (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Lt Col Conricus said the military hit 130 targets in Gaza, including two tunnels militants were digging under the border with Israel.

He did not address Gaza Health Ministry reports about the dead children.

In Gaza, most of the deaths were attributed to air strikes.

However, seven of the deaths were members of a single family, including three children, who died in an explosion in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun.

It was not clear if the blast was caused by an Israeli air strike or errant rocket.

Dozens of mourners took part in the funeral of Hussein Hamad, an 11-year-old boy who was among the dead.

Relatives of 11-year-old Hussain Hamad, who was killed by an explosion during the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, mourn during his funeral in the family home in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip
Relatives of 11-year-old Hussein Hamad, who was killed by an explosion, mourn during his funeral in the family home in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Israel struck scores of Gaza homes in its 2014 war with Hamas, arguing it was aiming at militants, but also killing many civilians.

The practice drew broad international condemnation at the time.

Israel’s tactics in Jerusalem have drawn angry reactions from the Muslim world.

Regional power house Saudi Arabia on Monday condemned what it said were attacks by Israeli forces against the sanctity of Al-Aqsa and the safety of its worshippers.

By Press Association