Jerusalem.- Israel stepped up its offensive in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, demolishing a building that was used by the Islamist group Hamas and killing at least three fighters in their hiding places as Palestinian rockets incessantly fell on parts of Israel. For its part, the Islamic Jihad claimed to have launched 100 rockets from Gaza against Israel.
Tuesday’s fighting was the heaviest between the two sides since 2014, with no signs of truce in sight.
The Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, vowed to expand the offensive, while Gaza fighters fired a barrage of rockets that set off airstrike sirens and set off explosions in the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
In Israel, five people, including three women and a minor, were killed in rocket attacks between Tuesday and Wednesday, and dozens were injured. The death toll in Gaza rose to 35 Palestinians, including 10 children, according to the Health Ministry. More than 200 people were injured.
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Meanwhile, in the West Bank, a 25-year-old Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli troops who entered the al-Fawar refugee camp in Hebron, the agency reported.
In another display of the widespread discontent, protests broke out in various Arab communities across Israel, in which protesters burned dozens of vehicles during their confrontations with the police.
The fighting between Israel and Hamas, which said it launched more than 200 missiles yesterday, were the most intense since the 50-day war in mid-2014. In just over 24 hours, the current wave of violence – caused by tensions religious leaders in the disputed city of Jerusalem – strongly evoked that devastating conflict.
Throughout the day, the outbreak of Israeli air strikes and the hiss of rockets could be heard in Gaza, while plumes of smoke rose from the impact sites. Israel resumed its bombing campaign to kill fighters and began tearing down entire buildings, a tactic that earned it strong international criticism in 2014.
In Israel, the rockets left trails of white smoke in their wake, while the explosion of antiaircraft batteries was heard. Sirens sounded throughout the day, alerting frightened residents to seek shelter.
In a nationally televised speech, Netanyahu said that Hamas and Islamic Jihad “have paid, and let me tell you, they will pay a high price for their aggressions.”
He claimed that Israel has killed dozens of fighters and caused heavy damage to hundreds of targets.
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“This campaign will take time,” he said. “With determination, unity and strength, we will restore security to the citizens of Israel.”
In a show of unity, Netanyahu was joined by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival. “There are many aligned objectives. This is just the beginning, ”Gantz said. The army reported that about 5,000 reservists will be activated and that it will deploy reinforcements on the border with Gaza.
The current wave of violence coincides with the Muslim celebration of Ramadan, a delicate time of religious tension.
Critics say the harsh Israeli measures in and around Jerusalem’s Old City helped stoke discontent. Another flash point has been the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood in East Jerusalem, where Jewish settlers have threatened to expel dozens of Palestinians.
Confrontations broke out last weekend at the Al-Aqsa mosque complex, a holy site for both Muslims and Judaism. The Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians inside the compound, who in response threw stones and chairs at the officers. At times, the policemen threw stun grenades into the mosque.
On Monday afternoon, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza. And from that moment on, tensions escalated rapidly.
In a televised speech, exiled Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Israel is responsible for the wave of violence. “It is the Israeli occupation that set Jerusalem on fire, and those flames reached Gaza,” he said.
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Palestinian health authorities did not provide details on the death toll in Gaza, but Islamic Jihad confirmed that three commanders were killed in one of the attacks on their hideout in a residential building in Gaza City. The Health Ministry reported that 10 children and a woman also lost their lives.
Netanyahu said Israel has hit hundreds of targets. The most intense offensive was a series of airstrikes that completely toppled a 12-story building. The building housed major Hamas offices, as well as a gym and some businesses. Israel fired a series of warning shots before demolishing the tower, allowing people to escape, and no casualties were reported.
An Israeli aircraft severely damaged another building in Gaza City in the early hours of Wednesday. The nine-story structure contained residential apartments, medical companies, and a dental clinic. A drone fired five warning rockets before the bombardment. Israel noted that Hamas had intelligence offices in place and the command of the group responsible for planning attacks against Israeli targets in the occupied West Bank.
The fighter jets attacked the building after journalists and first responders had gathered around it. It was not immediately known if there were any victims. The tower was located 200 meters from the office of The Associated Press in Gaza City, and smoke and debris trickled into the office.
Shortly after the bombing, Hamas announced that it would resume its attacks and aimed 100 rockets at the Israeli desert city of Beer-Sheva. Hamas said the new attack was a response to the bombing of the building.