Israel on Thursday said it was massing troops along the Gaza border and calling up 9,000 reservists ahead of a possible ground invasion of the Hamas-ruled territory, as the two bitter enemies plunged closer to all-out war. Egyptian mediators rushed to Israel for cease-fire efforts but showed no signs of progress.
The stepped-up fighting came as communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night, with Jewish and Arab mobs clashing in the flashpoint town of Lod. The fighting took place despite a bolstered police presence ordered by the nation's leaders.
The four-day burst of violence has pushed Israel into uncharted territory — dealing with the most intense fighting it has ever had with Hamas while simultaneously coping with the worst Jewish-Arab violence inside Israel in decades. A late-night barrage of rocket fire from Lebanon that landed in the sea threatened to open a new front along Israel's northern border.
Early Friday local time, the Israeli military said air and ground troops struck Gaza in what appeared to be the heaviest attacks yet. Masses of red flames illuminated the skies as deafening blasts from the outskirts of Gaza City jolted people awake. The strikes were so strong that people inside the city, several kilometres away, could be heard screaming in fear.
"I said we would extract a very heavy price from Hamas," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a videotaped statement. "We are doing that, and we will continue to do that with heavy force."
Biden weighs in
Previous fighting between Israel and Gaza's Hamas rulers, including a devastating 2014 war, was largely confined to the impoverished and blockaded Palestinian territory and Israeli communities on the frontier. But this round seems to be rippling farther and wider than at any time since the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
Gaza's Health Ministry said the death toll has climbed to 109 Palestinians, including 28 children and 15 women, with 621 people 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.
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 that are indiscriminately fired into population centres." He called the effort a "a work in progress."
Palestinians, meanwhile, sombrely marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Thursday. Since the rocket attacks began Monday, Israel has toppled three high-rise buildings that it said housed Hamas facilities after warning civilians to evacuate.
Efforts to broker ceasefire
Many world leaders have condemned the violence and urged restraint. A visit by Egyptian security officials was a significant development in international efforts to bring about a ceasefire; such efforts have been key to ending past rounds of fighting. The officials met first with Hamas leaders in Gaza before holding talks with the Israelis in Tel Aviv, two Egyptian intelligence officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the press.
Still, both Israel and Hamas seemed determined to press ahead.
Even as word came of the mediators' presence, Gaza militants fired a volley of some 100 rockets nearly simultaneously, raising air raid sirens around southern and central Israel. And late Thursday, Israel fired tank and artillery shells across the border for the first time, sending scores of terrified residents fleeing for safety.
Israeli defence minister approves call-up of reservists
Late Thursday, Israel's Defence Minister Benny Gantz ordered the mobilization of an additional 9,000 reservists.
The chief military spokesperson, Brig. Gen. Hidai Zilberman, said troops were massing along the Gaza border for a possible ground operation. He said tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery were being prepared "for mobilization at any given moment."
Hamas showed no signs of backing down. It launched several intense barrages of rockets throughout the day and fired its most powerful rocket, the Ayyash, nearly 200 kilometres into southern Israel. The rocket landed in the open desert but briefly disrupted flight traffic at the southern Ramon airport. Hamas also launched a drone that Israel said it quickly shot down.
Hamas military spokesperson Abu Obeida said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, saying any invasion would be a chance "to increase our catch" of dead or captive soldiers.
Arabs and Jews clash in Israel
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, saying it was defending Jerusalem, launched a barrage of rockets at the city late Monday, setting off days of fighting.
The exchanges have set off violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Israel, in scenes unseen in more than two decades.
The confrontations erupted again late Thursday. Jewish and Arab mobs battled in the central city of Lod for a fourth consecutive night, despite a state of emergency and heavy police presence. A Jewish man was shot and seriously wounded, 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.
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.
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