Israel steps up Gaza offensive, kills senior Hamas figures

Israel_Palestinians_21277 Rockets are launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_57735 Smoke is seen from a collapsed building after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The Israeli airstrike was the latest in a series of assaults on targets in the Gaza Strip after a long dispute between Israel and Hamas erupted into an exchange of rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli retaliation.
Israel_Palestinians_85230 Smoke and fire rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The Israeli airstrike was the latest in a series of assaults on targets in the Gaza Strip after a long dispute between Israel and Hamas erupted into an exchange of rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli retaliation.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_65258 Palestinian mourners pray by the body of Rasheed Abu Arra who was killed in the clashes with Israeli forces during his funeral, in the Village of Aqqaba near the West Bank town of Tubas, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israel_Palestinians_34443 Israeli paramilitary border police officers stand guard as Jewish right-wing demonstrators demand the release of three Jews arrested in the shooting death of Mousa Hasoona, outside the District Court in Lod, Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Police say Hasoona was with a group of Arab rioters threatening Jewish homes, an account disputed by Lod's Arab residents.
Palestinian rescuers evacuate an elderly woman from a building following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
Israel_Palestinians_59402 A Palestinian man passes by the remains of a building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
A young girl is comforted by her father next to a house damaged by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Yehod, central Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The house was hit on May 11, as barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward central Israel.
Palestinians inspect the damage in a building following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May. 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
Israel_Palestinians_63158 Damaged building are seen following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
Israel_Palestinians_00477 An Israeli soldier stands guard next to an Iron Dome air defense system as smoke rises from an oil tank on fire after it was hit by a rocket fire from Gaza Strip, near the town of Ashkelon, Israel,, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_83711 Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
Smoke rises after Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
Firefighters extinguish burning apartment buildings after they were hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, early Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Firefighters and youths inspect destroyed buildings after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, early Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Israel on Tuesday stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, flattening a high-rise building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at least a few militants in their hideouts as Palestinian rockets rained down almost nonstop on parts of Israel.
Smoke caused by Israeli airstrikes are seen at a residential building in Gaza City, early Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
People inspect the rubble of a destroyed residential building which was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israeli police scuffle with a Palestinian woman outside of the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem Tuesday, May 11, 2021. A confrontation between Israel and Hamas sparked by weeks of tensions in contested Jerusalem escalated Tuesday as Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza while militants barraged Israel with hundreds of rockets.
Israeli police detain a Palestinian outside of the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem Tuesday, May 11, 2021, during clashes. A confrontation between Israel and Hamas sparked by weeks of tensions in contested Jerusalem escalated Tuesday as Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza while militants barraged Israel with hundreds of rockets.
People inspect a car that was hit in an Israeli airstrike that killed three people in the car, on the main road in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israeli border police detain a Palestinian outside of the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem Tuesday, May 11, 2021. A confrontation between Israel and Hamas sparked by weeks of tensions in contested Jerusalem escalated Tuesday as Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza while militants barraged Israel with hundreds of rockets.
Palestinians_Israel_46137 People gather near the rubble of a destroyed residential building which was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Palestinians_Israel_05075 Smoke and fire rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israel_Palestinians_88184 People look at a house after it was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Yehud, central Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The house was hit Tuesday as barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward central Israel.
APTOPIX_Palestinians_Israel_49876 People inspect the rubble of a damaged building which was hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Palestinians_Israel_91576 People walk amid the rubble of a destroyed residential building which was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_64465 Palestinian rescuers evacuate an elderly woman from a building following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_49997 A young girl is comforted by her father next to a house damaged by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Yehod, central Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The house was hit on May 11, as barrage of rockets fired from the Gaza Strip toward central Israel.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_31656 An Israeli soldier stands guard next to an Iron Dome air defense system as smoke rises from an oil tank on fire after it was hit by a rocket fire from Gaza Strip, near the town of Ashkelon, Israel,, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israel_Palestinians_11699 Relatives gather outside the damaged home of Nadine,16, and Khalil Awaad, a father and daughter who were killed by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in their village of Dahmash near the Israeli city of Lod, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
A Palestinian man looks at a broken road following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
Palestinians_Israel_94094 Residents gather around a car that was hit in an Israeli airstrike that killed three people in the car, on the main road in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israel_Palestinians_13753 A Palestinian family sit on the street side after they were evacuated from a building following Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
Palestinians_Israel_02742 Firefighters inspect destroyed buildings after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City, early Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
The remains of a building destroyed by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Rockets streamed out of Gaza and Israel pounded the territory with airstrikes early Wednesday as the most severe outbreak of violence since the 2014 war took on many of the hallmarks of that devastating 50-day conflict, with no endgame in sight.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_71786 Palestinian mourners cry while taking a last look at the body of Mohammad Daraghmeh at the family house during his funeral in the West Bank village of Lubban, near Nablus, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Israeli soldiers opened fire yesterday at a Palestinian vehicle at an army checkpoint north of the West Bank, killing Daraghmeh, a passenger, and critically wounding another, the Palestinian health ministry said.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_10559 An Israeli missile flies down to hit a building in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. The Israeli airstrike was the latest in a series of assaults on targets in the Gaza Strip after a long dispute between Israel and Hamas erupted into an exchange of rocket attacks from Gaza and Israeli retaliation.
Israel_Palestinians_14411 Mourners attend the funeral of Leah Yom Tov, 63, at a cemetery in Rishon Lezion, Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Yom Tov was killed from a rocket that was fired from Gaza Strip and hit her house in Rishon Lezion on May 11.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_05179 An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in Gaza Strip, at the Israeli Gaza border, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israel_Palestinians_79106 An Israeli man inspects the damage to a house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israel_Palestinians_50545 Mourners carry the coffin of Israeli Arab Khalil Awaad and his daughter Nadine,16, during their funeral in the village of Dahmash near the Israeli city of Lod, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Early Wednesday a rocket fired from Gaza Strip hit their house and killed both father and his daughter.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_82889 An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in Gaza Strip, at the Israeli Gaza border, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israel_Palestinians_07774 Mourners react during the funeral of Israeli Arab Khalil Awaad and his daughter Nadine, 16, in the village of Dahmash near the Israeli city of Lod, Wednesday, May 12, 2021. Early Wednesday a rocket fired from Gaza Strip hit their house and killed both father and his daughter.
APTOPIX_Palestinians_Israel_05075 Smoke and fire rise following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israel_Palestinians_91622 Palestinian mourners carry the body of Rasheed Abu Arra who was killed in the clashes with Israeli forces during his funeral, in the Village of Aqqaba near the West Bank town of Tubas, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Israel_Palestinians_22717 An Israeli paramedic checks the blood pressure of a young girl at residential building after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza Strip, in Ashkelon, southern Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
APTOPIX_Israel_Palestinians_46105 A Palestinian woman mourns over her son Rasheed Abu Arra, who was killed in clashes with Israeli forces, during his funeral in the Village of Aqqaba near the West Bank town of Tubas, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
Palestinians_Israel_49876 People inspect the rubble of a damaged building which was hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.
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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel on Wednesday pressed ahead with a fierce military offensive in the Gaza Strip, killing as many as 10 senior Hamas military figures and toppling a pair of high-rise towers housing Hamas facilities in airstrikes. The Islamic militant group showed no signs of backing down and fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities.

In just three days, this latest round of fighting between the bitter enemies has already begun to resemble — and even exceed — a devastating 50-day war in 2014. Like in that previous war, neither side appears to have an exit strategy.

But there are key differences. The fighting has triggered the worst Jewish-Arab violence inside Israel in decades. And looming in the background is an international war crimes investigation.

Israel carried out an intense barrage of airstrikes just after sunrise, striking dozens of targets in several minutes that set off bone-rattling explosions across Gaza. Airstrikes continued throughout the day, filling the sky with pillars of smoke.

At nightfall, the streets of Gaza City resembled a ghost town as people huddled indoors on the final night of Islam’s holiest month of Ramadan. The evening, followed by the Eid al-Fitr holiday, is usually a time of vibrant night life, shopping and crowded restaurants.

“There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide,” said Zeyad Khattab, a 44-year-old pharmacist who fled with a dozen other relatives to a family home in central Gaza after bombs pounded his apartment building in Gaza City. “That terror is impossible to describe.”

Gaza militants continued to bombard Israel with nonstop rocket fire throughout the day and into early Thursday. The attacks brought life to a standstill in southern communities near Gaza, but also reached as far north as the Tel Aviv area, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) to the north, for a second straight day.

The military said sirens also wailed in northern Israel’s Emek area, or Jezreel Valley, the farthest the effects of Gaza rockets have reached since 2014. The Israeli army also shared footage showing a rocket impact between apartment towers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva early Thursday, apparently sparking a large fire. It said the strike left people wounded and caused “significant damage.”

“We’re coping, sitting at home, hoping it will be OK,” said Motti Haim, a resident of the central town of Beer Yaakov and father of two children. “It’s not simple running to the shelter. It’s not easy with the kids.”

Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll rose to 69 Palestinians, including 16 children and six women. Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of seven militants, while Hamas acknowledged that a top commander and several other members were killed.

Rescuers pulled the bodies of a man and his wife from the debris of their home that was hit by rockets in the latest Israeli airstrikes early Thursday, relatives said.

A total of seven people have been killed in Israel, including four people who died on Wednesday. Among them were a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a 6-year-old child hit in a rocket attack.

The Israeli military claims the number of militants killed so far is much higher than Hamas has acknowledged.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said at least 14 militants were killed Wednesday — including 10 members of the “top management of Hamas” and four weapons experts. Altogether, he claimed some 30 militants have been killed since the fighting began.

More raids conducted early Thursday were aimed at several “strategically significant” facilities for Hamas, including a bank and a compound for a naval squad, the military said.

While United Nations and Egyptian officials have said that cease-fire efforts are underway, there were no signs of progress. Israeli television’s Channel 12 reported late Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet authorized a widening of the offensive.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the “indiscriminate launching of rockets” from civilian areas in Gaza toward Israeli population centers, but he also urged Israel to show “maximum restraint.” President Joe Biden called Netanyahu to support Israel’s right to defend itself and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said he was sending a senior diplomat to the region to try to calm tensions.

The current eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem, where heavy-handed Israeli police tactics during Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers ignited protests and clashes with police. A focal point was the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound that is revered by Jews and Muslims, where police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters who threw chairs and stones at them.

Hamas, claiming to be defending Jerusalem, launched a barrage of rockets at the city late Monday, setting off days of fighting.

The Israeli military says militants have fired about 1,500 rockets in just three days. That is roughly one-third the number fired during the entire 2014 war.

Israel, meanwhile, has struck over 350 targets in Gaza, a tiny territory where 2 million Palestinians have lived under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007. Two infantry brigades were sent to the area, indicating preparations for a possible ground invasion.

In tactics echoing past wars, Israel has begun to target senior members of Hamas’ military wing. It also has flattened three high-rise buildings in a tactic that has drawn international scrutiny in the past.

Israel says the buildings all housed Hamas operations centers, but they also included residential apartments and businesses. In all cases, Israel fired warning shots, allowing people to flee, and there were no reports of casualties.

The fighting has set off violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Israel, in scenes unseen since 2000. Netanyahu warned that he was prepared to use an “iron fist if necessary” to calm the violence.

But ugly clashes erupted across the country late Wednesday. Jewish and Arab mobs battled in the central city of Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, despite a state of emergency and nighttime curfew. In nearby Bat Yam, a mob of Jewish nationalists attacked an Arab motorist, dragged him from his car and beat him until he was motionless.

In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military said it thwarted a Palestinian shooting attack that wounded two people. The Palestinian Health Ministry said the suspected gunman was killed. No details were immediately available.

Still unclear is how the fighting in Gaza will affect Netanyahu’s political future. He failed to form a government coalition after inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, and now his political rivals have three weeks to try to form one.

His rivals have courted a small Islamist Arab party. But the longer the fighting lasts, the more it could hamper their attempts at forming a coalition. It could also boost Netanyahu if another election is held, since security is his strong suit with the public.

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

The International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into possible war crimes by Israel and Hamas. In a brief statement, ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said she had noted “with great concern” the escalation of violence and “the possible commission of crimes.”

The ICC is looking into Israeli actions in past wars in Gaza. Israel is not a member of the court, does not recognize the ICC’s jurisdiction and rejects the accusations. But in theory, the ICC could issue warrants and try to arrest Israeli suspects while they are traveling overseas.

Conricus, the military spokesman, said Israeli forces respect international laws on armed conflict and do their utmost to minimize civilian casualties. Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the group fires rockets from residential areas.

Emanuel Gross, a professor emeritus the University of Haifa law school, said Israel should “take into consideration the concerns of the ICC.” But he said he believes the military is on solid legal ground while rockets are striking Israeli cities.

“That’s the real meaning of self defense,” he said. “If you are attacked by a terrorist group, you defend yourself.”

___

Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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