Tel Aviv – Palestinian militants Hamas fired a barrage of rockets at Israel’s economic hub Tel Aviv on Tuesday in retaliation for an Israeli strike that destroyed a tower block in Gaza, as the foes traded their heaviest fire for several years.
The sharp escalation, triggered by violence in Jerusalem, has killed at least 30 Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip and three Israelis, and wounded hundreds more.
“This is just the beginning” of Israel’s strikes, Defence Minister Benny Gantz warned.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh vowed that “if Israel wants to escalate, we are ready for it.”
The UN envoy for Middle East Peace, Tor Wennesland, warned that Israel and Hamas were heading towards “full scale war”.
In the crowded, Israeli-blockaded enclave of Gaza, 10 children and one woman were among those killed since Monday night.
A further 203 people were reported wounded from the ongoing Israeli air strikes, many rescued from the smouldering ruins of buildings.
In Israel, sirens sounded as Hamas rockets rained down, and some of those unable to make it to underground shelters took cover under bridges.
“It was scary,” said Haim Roy Ben Shlomo, 38, resident of Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, adding he had heard “several loud shots, or booms, above our heads.”
An Israeli woman was killed as rockets hit Rishon Letzion on the coastal city’s southern edge, while in nearby Holon, AFP footage showed a burnt-out bus as rescue workers cleaned up debris.
The rocket fire forced Israel to suspend flights at its main airport of Ben Gurion, near Tel Aviv.
In Gaza, people sifted through debris after an Israeli air strike destroyed a 12-storey building.
Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory, said the tower block had been a residential building. AFP reporters said it also houses offices of several Hamas officials.
Hamas threatened to turn the nearby Israeli city of Ashkelon into “hell”, and rockets fired by militants in Gaza killed two women there.
At one stage the group claimed to have fired more than 100 rockets in under five minutes to overwhelm air defences.
At least 100 Israelis were injured in Tuesday’s escalation.
Israel’s army said more than 600 rockets had been fired since Monday from Gaza towards Israel mainly by Hamas, which rules Gaza, and the Islamic Jihad group.
Many landed inside Gaza or were taken out by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system.
‘Fighting will intensify’
Army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said Israel estimated it had killed 20 Islamist militants in Gaza, warning that “our expectation is the fighting will intensify”.
Asked about unconfirmed reports that Hamas was seeking a ceasefire, Conricus said: “I don’t think my commanders are aware, or particularly interested.”
A Palestinian was also killed and another wounded Tuesday by Israeli army gunfire in the north of the occupied West Bank, a Palestinian security source told AFP.
The Israeli army reported an attempted drive-by shooting, saying “two assailants were neutralised at the scene”.
The United States on Tuesday urged both sides to avoid “deeply lamentable” civilian deaths.
“Israel does have a right to defend itself,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said, adding: “we don’t want to see provocations.”
‘You escalate, we escalate’
Weeks of tensions boiled over when Israeli riot police clashed with crowds of Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Nightly clashes since then at the compound, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews, and elsewhere in east Jerusalem have left at least 700 Palestinians injured.
Hamas had warned Israel on Monday to withdraw all its forces from the mosque compound and the Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah, where looming evictions of Palestinian families have fuelled protests.
Sirens wailed across Jerusalem just after the deadline as people in the city, including lawmakers in the Knesset legislature, fled to bunkers for the first time since the 2014 Gaza conflict.
Hamas’ Qassam Brigades warned Israel: “if you respond we will respond, and if you escalate we will escalate”.
Diplomatic sources told AFP that Egypt and Qatar, who have mediated past Israeli-Hamas conflicts, were attempting to calm tensions.
But Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told an emergency Arab League meeting that although Cairo had “extensively reached out” to Israel and other countries, “we did not get the necessary response”.
The UN Security Council was set to discuss the violence at an emergency meeting on Wednesday.
‘Taking off gloves’
Large protests were held in solidarity with Palestinians around the world, including in London, as well as in Muslim-majority countries including Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey.
In Jordan, protesters gathered outside the Israeli embassy, burning Israeli flags and chanting “Shame, shame the embassy is still there” and “Death to Israel!”
Palestinians scuffled again with Israeli officers in riot gear on Tuesday evening, although less intensely than on previous nights.
Palestinian man Siraj, 24, said he had suffered a spleen injury from a rubber bullet fired by the police.
“They shot everyone, young and old people,” he said.
Amnesty International has accused Israel of using “abusive and wanton force against largely peaceful Palestinian protesters”. — AFP