GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Palestinians grabbed their children and belongings and fled neighborhoods on the outskirts of Gaza City on Friday as Israel unleashed a heavy barrage of tank fire and airstrikes. Israel said it was clearing a network of militant tunnels.
Separately, in the West Bank, Palestinian health officials said seven Palestinians were killed by Israeli army fire in several locations.
Israel has massed troops along the border and called up 9,000 reservists as fighting intensifies with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. Palestinian militants have fired some 1,800 rockets, and the Israeli military has launched more than 600 airstrikes, toppling at least three high-rise apartment buildings, and has shelled some areas with tanks stationed near the frontier.
As Israel and Hamas plunged closer to all-out war despite international efforts at a cease-fire, communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night. Jewish and Arab mobs clashed in the flashpoint town of Lod, even after Israel dispatched additional security forces.
The Gaza Health Ministry says the toll from the fighting has risen to 119 killed, including 31 children and 19 women, with 830 wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.
Of the seven Palestinians killed in the West Bank, most were killed in stone-throwing clashes in several locations, although one was killed while trying to stab an Israeli soldier, the health officials said. About 100 were injured, most by live fire, they said.
The protests took place in several locations across the West Bank, signaling a new wave of unrest there as part of the escalation of fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
Before dawn Friday, Israeli tanks and warplanes carried out an intense barrage on the northern end of the Gaza Strip.
In the darkness, Houda Ouda and her extended family ran frantically inside their home in the town of Beit Hanoun, trying to find shelter as the earth shook for two and half hours, Ouda recalled.
“We even did not dare to look from the window to know what is being hit,” she said. When daylight came, she saw the swath of destruction outside: streets cratered, buildings crushed, their facades torn off, an olive tree burned bare, dust and powered concrete covering everything.
Among the dead was a family of six. Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, aged 7 and under, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced their four-story apartment building to rubble in the neighboring town of Beit Lahia, residents said.
Four strikes hit the building at 11 p.m., just before the family was going to sleep, Rafat’s brother Fadi said. The building’s owner and his wife were also killed.
“It was a massacre,” said Sadallah Tanani, another relative. “My feelings are indescribable.”
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the operation involved tank fire and airstrikes, aimed at destroying a network of tunnels beneath Gaza City that the military refers to as “the Metro,” used by militants to evade surveillance and airstrikes.
“As always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimize collateral damage and civilian casualties,” he said. “Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn’t feasible this time.”
When the sun rose, residents streamed out of the area in pickup trucks, on donkeys and on foot, taking pillows, blankets, pots and pans and bread. “We were terrified for our children, who were screaming and shaking,” said Hedaia Maarouf, who fled with her extended family of 19 people, including 13 children.
Thousands crowded into 16 U.N.-run schools for shelter, said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for UNRWA, the U.N. relief agency for Palestinians.
Mohammed Ghabayen, who took shelter in one school with his family, said his children had eaten nothing since the day before, and they had no mattresses to sleep on. “And this is in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis,” he said. “We don’t know whether to take precautions for the coronavirus or the rockets or what to do exactly.
The strikes came after Egyptian mediators rushed to Israel for cease-fire talks that showed no signs of progress. Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations were leading the truce efforts.
An Egyptian intelligence official with knowledge of the talks said Israel rejected an Egyptian proposal for a yearlong truce with Hamas and other Gaza militants, which would have started at midnight Thursday had Israel agreed. He said Hamas had accepted the proposal.
The official said Israel wants to delay a cease-fire to give time to destroy more of Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s military capabilities. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press.
The fighting broke out late Monday when Hamas fired a long-range rocket at Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests there against the policing of a flashpoint 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 earth-shaking explosions in densely populated areas. Of the 1,800 rockets Gaza militants have fired, more than 400 fell short or misfired, and most of the rest have been intercepted by missile defense systems, according to the military.
Still the rockets have brought life in parts of southern Israel to a standstill, and several barrages have targeted the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, some 70 kilometers (45 miles) from Gaza.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue the operation, saying in a video statement that Israel would “extract a very heavy price from Hamas.”
In Washington, U.S. President Joe Biden said he spoke with Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying “there has not been a significant overreaction.”
He said the goal now is to “get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks.” He called the effort “a work in progress.”
The fighting has, for the moment, disrupted efforts by Netanyahu’s political opponents to form a new government coalition, prolonging his effort to stay in office after inconclusive parliamentary elections. His rivals have three weeks to agree on a coalition but need the support of an Arab party, whose leader has said he cannot negotiate while Israel is fighting in Gaza.
Israel has come under heavy international criticism for civilian casualties during three previous wars in Gaza, which is home to 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 backing down. It fired its most powerful rocket, the Ayyash, nearly 200 kilometers (120 miles) into southern Israel on Thursday. The rocket landed in the open desert but briefly disrupted flight traffic at the southern Ramon airport. Hamas has also launched two drones that Israel said it quickly shot down.
A spokesman for Hamas’ military wing said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, which would be a chance “to increase our catch” of Israeli soldiers.
The current eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem. A focal point of clashes was Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, on a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims. Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which includes sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, to be the capital of their future state.
The violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem and other mixed cities across Israel has added a new layer of volatility to the conflict not seen in more than two decades.
The violence continued overnight into Friday. A Jewish man was shot and seriously wounded in Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, and Israeli media said a second Jewish man was shot. In the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa, an Israeli soldier was attacked by a group of Arabs and hospitalized in serious condition.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said some 750 suspects have been arrested since the communal violence began earlier this week.
Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Samy Magdy in Cairo contributed.