A confrontation between Israel and Hamas sparked by weeks of tensions in contested Jerusalem escalated Tuesday. Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza, killing a number of militants and civilians, while militants barraged southern Israel with hundreds of rockets, killing two Israelis.
Since sundown Monday, 26 Palestinians – including nine children and a woman- were killed in Gaza, most by airstrikes, 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 cease-fire, 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 defense minister ordered the mobilization of 5,000 reserve soldiers.
The barrage of rockets and airstrikes was preceded by hours of clashes 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 fueled 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.
An Egyptian official confirmed that the country was trying to broker a truce. But the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing sensitive diplomacy, said Israeli actions in Jerusalem had complicated those efforts. A Palestinian security official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the cease-fire efforts.
Israel carried out dozens of airstrikes, including two that targeted high-rise apartment buildings where militants were believed to be hiding.
At midday, an airstrike 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.
An earlier airstrike 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 26 people, including nine children and the woman, were killed and 122 people were wounded. He said Israel’s “relentless assault” was overwhelming the health care system, which has been struggling with a COVID-19 outbreak.
The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.
Netanyahu has been caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive parliamentary election in March. 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 defense 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.
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 neighborhood 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. From there on, the escalation was rapid.
Lt. Col. 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.