Israel carried out hundreds of air strikes in Gaza on Wednesday and Palestinie fired multiple rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and the southern city of Beersheba in the region’s most intense hostilities in years.
At least 48 people have been killed in Gaza since violence escalated on Monday. Six people have been killed in Israel.
In Gaza, a multi-story residential building collapsed after Israel warned its occupants in advance to evacuate, and another was heavily damaged, after they were hit in the air strikes.
Israel said its warplanes had targeted and killed several Hamas’s intelligence leaders early on Wednesday. Other strikes hit what the military said were rocket launch sites, Hamas offices and the homes of Hamas leaders.
This is the heaviest offensive between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war and experts have warned of the situation spiralling out of control.
U.N. Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland said the United Nations was working with all sides to restore calm. Egypt made calls overnight to Palestinian leaders to urge restraint.
Lod and other mixed Arab-Jewish towns have been gripped by demonstrations over the Gaza violence and tensions in Jerusalem.
Hamas’s armed wing said it fired 210 rockets towards Beersheba and Tel Aviv overnight in response to the strikes on the tower buildings in Gaza City. Israel’s military says about a third of the rockets have fallen short, landing within Gaza.
For Israel, the targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with Hamas, regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States.
The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Palestine would pay a “very heavy” price for the rocket attacks.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had been in contact, urging calm, but his group’s message to Israel was: “If they want to escalate, the resistance is ready, if they want to stop, the resistance is ready.”
The White House said on Tuesday Israel had a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem must be a place of coexistence.
Although the latest problems in Jerusalem were the immediate trigger for the hostilities, Palestinians have become more frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state in the past few years.
These include Washington’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a U.S. plan to end the conflict that they saw as favourable to Israel, and settlement building.
Israel said it had dispatched infantry and armour to reinforce tanks already gathered on the border.