Israel strikes Gaza to contain Palestinian militants, but missiles are still flying

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© Reuters. Israeli soldiers check artillery shells in an area near the Gaza border in southern Israel on May 13, 2021. REUTERS / Amir Cohen

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By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA / JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel hit Gaza with artillery fire and air strikes on Friday as it targeted militant Palestinian tunnels in an attempt to stop sustained rocket attacks on Israeli cities.

The 40-minute offensive before dawn killed 13 Palestinians, including a mother and three children whose bodies were pulled from the rubble of their home, health officials in Gaza said.

The Israeli operation involved 160 planes, tanks and artillery fired from outside the Gaza Strip, Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said.

On the fifth day of the heaviest fighting between militants from Israel and the Gaza Strip since 2014, Palestinian rocket barriers against southern Israel quickly followed.

Egypt led international efforts to reach a ceasefire and ensure the conflict does not spread. Security sources said neither page has been accessed yet, but a Palestinian official said negotiations intensified on Friday.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday and called for a return to peace in the region.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, launched the rocket attacks on Monday in retaliation for clashes by Israeli police with Palestinians near Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site in East Jerusalem.

Since then, the violence has spread to cities where Jews and Israel’s Arab minority live side by side. There were also clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where health officials said seven Palestinians were killed on Friday.

At least 122 people have been killed in Gaza since Monday, including 31 children and 20 women, and 900 others were injured, Palestinian doctors said.

Among eight dead in Israel were a soldier patrolling the Gaza border and six Israeli civilians – including two children, an elderly woman and an Indian worker, the Israeli authorities said.

SYSTEM OF TUNNEL

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said more than 200 housing units had been destroyed or badly damaged in Gaza and hundreds of people were taking refuge in schools in the north of the coastal enclave.

Israel says it is making every effort to preserve civil life, including warning of attacks.

“What we are aiming for is a sophisticated system of tunnels that extends under Gaza, mainly to the north, but not limited to it, and a network that Hamas activists use to move, to hide, to get to hide, “Conricus told foreign reporters, adding that the network is known as” the Metro “.

Israeli warplanes on Friday bombed the homes of three senior Hamas military commanders in Central Gaza who had already been evacuated.

An Israeli plane also bombed the building that housed the National Production Bank in Gaza City with bricks and debris flying in some nearby buildings and breaking windows, witnesses said.

Dozens of mourners attended the funeral of six people – members of two families whose homes were hit by Israeli air strikes on Thursday – in the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip.

Khamees al-Rantissi held the cloth-bound body of his 19-month-old nephew and said her home had been bombed without warning. “What did this child do? What threat did they pose to the State of Israel?” Asked Rantissi.

Netanyahu said Thursday the campaign would “take more time”. Israeli officials said Hamas must be dealt a strong dissuasive blow before a ceasefire can be reached.

The build-up of Israeli military forces on the Gaza Strip border has sparked speculation about a possible recurrence of ground invasions during the Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2009, but Israel is unwilling to risk a sharp increase in military casualties.

FLURRY OF DIPLOMACY

Egypt urged both sides to cease firing from midnight on Friday until further negotiations take place, two Egyptian security forces said. Cairo relied on Hamas and others, including the United States, to reach an agreement with Israel.

“The talks took a real and serious path on Friday,” said a Palestinian official. “The mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are stepping up contacts on all sides to restore calm, but no agreement has yet been reached.”

The hostilities have fueled tensions between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority. Violence in mixed communities continued overnight after street fighting and attacks broke out that prompted the Israeli president to warn of civil war.

Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, who chaired the Friday prayers in the Al-Aqsa Mosque, opposed the treatment of the mosque by Israeli forces. He said his “holiness was violated several times during the holy month of Ramadan,” which he described as “unprecedented” since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

The Israeli military said a Palestinian attempted to stab a soldier near the city of Ramallah on the West Bank. The soldier shot the attacker. Palestinian health officials said the man was killed.

Major airlines have suspended flights to Israel and at least two owners of tankers delivering have been asked to reroute from Ashkelon to the port of Haifa further north of Gaza because of the conflict, shipping sources said Friday.

There were pro-Palestinian protests in Jordan and Lebanon, on the borders of the West Bank and Israel, and in Bangladesh, where thousands of Dhaka’s national mosque marched.

However, the overall picture in the Middle East and the Islamic world, with Muslims celebrating the Eid al-Fitr holiday and movement restrictions in some countries due to COVID-19, was noticeably subdued.

The UN Security Council will publicly discuss the escalation of violence on Sunday, diplomats said after the United States objected to a meeting on Friday.

The Israeli military has estimated the number of militants killed in Israeli attacks at 80 to 90. So far, around 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, 430 of which fell short or failed in Gaza.

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