Gaza City, Gaza Strip (AFP) – The Israeli army said that Israeli artillery bombed northern Gaza at dawn Friday in an attempt to destroy an extensive network of tunnels inside the Strip, bringing the front lines closer to dense civilian areas and paving the way for a possible ground invasion.
Israel massed its forces along the border and called up 9,000 reservists after days of fighting with the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), which controls Gaza. Palestinian militants fired around 1,800 rockets, and the army launched more than 600 air strikes and shot down at least three housing complexes.
The escalation of fighting came as sectarian violence erupted in Israel for a fourth night, with clashes between crowds of Jews and Arabs in the restive town of Lod. The fighting took place despite a beefed up police presence ordered by the country’s leaders.
Crowds of red flames lit up the sky as people reverberated from the deafening blasts from the outskirts of Gaza City.
Residents said that Rafat al-Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children were killed in the northern Gaza Strip after an Israeli warplane demolished the building to rubble. Saadallah Tanani, one of the relatives, said that the family was “removed from the population registry,” without warning. It was a massacre. My feelings are indescribable.
Military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said tanks stationed near the border fired 50 rounds. It was part of a large operation that also included air strikes and was aimed at destroying tunnels underneath Gaza City that militants use to evade surveillance and air strikes, which the army calls “the metro”.
He said, “As usual, the goal is to hit military targets and reduce collateral damage and civilian casualties.” “In contrast to our very intensive efforts to clear civilian areas before we hit tall or large buildings inside Gaza, this was not possible this time.”
The strikes came after Egyptian mediators rushed to Israel for ceasefire talks, which showed no signs of progress. Saleh al-Arouri, a prominent leader in exiled Hamas, told the London-based Al-Arabi satellite channel that his group had rejected a proposal for a three-hour truce. He said that Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations lead the armistice efforts.
Fighting erupted late Monday when Hamas fired a long-range missile into Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests there against guarding a tense holy site and efforts by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes.
Since then, Israel has attacked hundreds of targets in Gaza, causing ground-breaking explosions throughout the densely populated area. Gaza militants fired 1,800 rockets at Israel, including more than 400 that failed or failed, according to the army.
The rockets halted life in parts of southern Israel, and several rockets targeted the coastal city of Tel Aviv, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Gaza.
The Gaza Ministry of Health says that the death toll has risen to 119, including 31 children and 19 women, and 830 injured. The militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, although Israel says the number is much higher. Seven people were killed in Israel, including a six-year-old child and a soldier.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue the process, saying in a video statement that Israel “will extract a heavy price from Hamas.”
In Washington, President Joe Biden said he had spoken with Netanyahu about de-escalating the fighting, but also backed the Israeli leader by saying, “There was no overreaction.”
The aim now is to “reach a point where there is a significant decrease in attacks, especially missile attacks,” he said. He described the effort as a “work in progress”.
Israel has come under heavy international criticism for civilian casualties during three previous wars in Gaza, a densely populated region inhabited by more than 2 million Palestinians. It says Hamas is responsible for endangering civilians by placing military infrastructure in civilian areas and launching rockets from them.
Hamas showed no signs of abating. It fired its most powerful missile, the Ayyash, 200 kilometers (120 miles) into southern Israel. The missile fell in the open desert, but briefly disrupted air traffic at Ramon South Airport. Hamas also launched two drones that Israel said it quickly shot down.
Abu Ubaida, a Hamas military spokesman, said the movement was not afraid of a ground invasion, which could be an opportunity to “increase our hunting” for the dead or captured soldiers.
The fighting has cast a shadow over the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which usually includes family gatherings and festive meals. Instead, the streets of Gaza were mostly empty.
The current violence erupted a month ago in Jerusalem. The Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, built on top of a hill holy to Jews and Muslims, was a focal point in the clashes. Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, as the capital of their future state.
Meanwhile, violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem and other mixed cities across Israel have added a new layer of volatility to the conflict that has not been witnessed for more than two decades.
A Jew was shot in Lod, the epicenter of the unrest, and Israeli media said a second Jewish man was hit by a bullet. In the Jaffa neighborhood of Tel Aviv, a group of Arabs attacked an Israeli soldier, and he was taken to hospital in critical condition.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said 750 suspects have been arrested since the start of the sectarian violence earlier this week. He said that the police clashed overnight with people in Lod and Tel Aviv, who threw rocks and petrol bombs at them.
The fighting deepened the political crisis that drove Israel to collapse in four inconclusive elections in just two years. After the March elections, Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government. Now his political opponents have three weeks to try.
These efforts were greatly complicated by the fighting. Its opponents include a wide variety of parties that have little in common. They will need the support of an Arab party whose leader has said it cannot negotiate while Israel is fighting in Gaza.
Krause reported from Jerusalem.