Israel carried out hundreds of air strikes in Gaza on Wednesday and Palestinian militants fired multiple rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and the southern city of Beersheba in the region’s most intense hostilities in years.
At least 49 people have been killed in Gaza since violence escalated on Monday, according to the enclave’s health ministry. Six people have been killed in Israel, medical officials said.
A Palestinian source said truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations were continuing but without progress so far. UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland said the United Nations was working with all sides to restore calm.
In Gaza, a multi-storey residential building collapsed after Israel warned its occupants in advance to evacuate, and another was heavily damaged in the air strikes.
Israel said its warplanes had targeted and killed several of the Islamist group Hamas’s intelligence leaders. Other strikes hit what the military said were rocket launch sites, Hamas offices and the homes of Hamas leaders.
The heaviest offensive between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in the Hamas-ruled enclave has increased international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.
“Israel has gone crazy,” said a man on a Gaza street, where people ran out of their homes as explosions rocked buildings.
Sixteen people were killed in Israeli air strikes on Gaza on Wednesday, Gaza’s health ministry said. Witnesses and health officials in Gaza said one Israeli air strike killed three people, including a woman, in a car.
Many Israelis also spent a sleepless night, with sirens wailing in Tel Aviv, heralding several waves of rocket strikes in Israel’s heartland.
“The children have escaped the coronavirus, and now a new trauma,” an Israeli woman in the coastal city of Ashkelon said in footage on Channel 11 television.
Israelis ran to shelters or lay flat on pavements in communities more than 70 km up the coast from Gaza as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky.
“All of Israel is under attack. It’s a very scary situation to be in,” said Margo Aronovic, a 26-year-old student, in Tel Aviv.
An Israeli was killed by an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza at a vehicle near the border, Israel’s national ambulance service said. Hamas claimed responsibility. Two people were killed by a rocket that hit their car in Lod, near Tel Aviv.
Lod and other mixed Arab-Jewish towns have been gripped by demonstrations over the Gaza violence and tensions in Jerusalem.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israeli forces had attacked “many hundreds of targets” and killed senior militants in Gaza and that “all means and options” remained on the table.
“The Israeli military will continue to attack and will bring about complete and long-term quiet,” Gantz told reporters. “Only when we achieve this goal, can we talk about calming things down. At the moment, there is no end-date.”
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 during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters near Al-Aqsa Mosque in East Jerusalem.
These escalated ahead of a court hearing – now postponed – that could lead to the eviction of Palestinian families from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.
The conflict has led to the freezing of talks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s opponents on forming a governing coalition to unseat him after Israel’s inconclusive March 23 election.
Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank. Medical sources said a 16-year-old Palestinian was killed in clashes with Israeli forces on Wednesday.
“If they (Israeli forces) want to escalate, the resistance is ready, if they want to stop, the resistance is ready,” Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said.
Gaza’s health ministry said 14 of the people reported killed in the enclave were children. The Israeli military said it was looking into these reports and that preventing civilian casualties was a priority.
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.
Israel said it had dispatched infantry and armour to reinforce tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of the last Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks in 2014.
Witnesses said Israeli aircraft destroyed Gaza’s Hamas-run police headquarters in the city.