Israeli bombardment of Gaza Strip intensifies, fighting spills into West Bank


Palestinian families fled neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Gaza City on Friday as Israel unleashed heavy artillery fire at what it said was a large network of tunnels used by Palestinian militant groups.

Israel intensified bombardment of the Gaza Strip on Friday with a furious overnight barrage of tank fire and airstrikes that wreaked destruction in some towns, killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands of civilians fleeing their homes.

Turmoil from the fighting has spilled over into the West Bank, sparking the most-widespread Israeli-Arab protests in years as hundreds of young demonstrators in multiple towns clashed with Israeli troops, who shot and killed at least 11 people.

The Israeli military said the operation involved 160 warplanes dropping some 80 tons of explosives over the course of 40 minutes and succeeded in destroying a network of tunnels used by Palestinian militant groups to elude airstrikes and surveillance.

Since Monday night, Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel, which has pounded the Gaza Strip with airstrikes.

In Gaza, at least 126 people have been killed, including 31 children and 20 women, Gaza officials said.

Palestinians riding on a pickup truck flee their home during Israeli air and artillery strikes amid cross-border violence in the northern Gaza Strip on Friday. (Suhaib Salem/Reuters)

Israeli authorities said seven people in Israel have been killed in the fighting, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.

Houda Ouda said she and her extended family ran frantically into their home in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, seeking safety as the earth shook in the darkness.

Israeli soldiers fire a 155-mm self-propelled howitzer toward the Gaza Strip from their position near the southern Israeli city of Sderot on Friday.(Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty)

"We even did not dare to look from the window to know what is being hit," she said. When daylight came, she saw the destruction: streets cratered, buildings crushed or with facades blown off, an olive tree burned bare, dust covering everything.

The conflict, which was sparked by tensions in Jerusalem during the past month, has reverberated widely. Israeli cities with mixed Arab and Jewish populations have seen daily violence, with mobs from each community clashing and trashing each other's property. New clashes broke out Friday in the coastal city of Acre.

Palestinians flee their homes after overnight Israeli heavy missile strikes on their neighbourhood outside of Gaza City on Friday.(Khalil Hamra/The Associated Press)

New wave of unrest in the West Bank

In the barricaded West Bank, on the outskirts of Ramallah, Nablus and other towns and cities, hundreds of Palestinians protested against the Gaza campaign and Israeli actions in Jerusalem. Waving Palestinian flags, they trucked in tires that they set up in burning barricades and hurled stones at Israeli soldiers.

At least 10 protesters were shot and killed by soldiers. An 11th Palestinian was killed when he tried to stab a soldier at a military position.

In East Jerusalem, online video showed young Jewish nationalists firing pistols as they traded volleys of stone with Israeli Arabs in Sheikh Jarrah, which became a flashpoint for tensions over attempts by settlers to forcibly evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes.

On Israel's northern border, troops opened fire when a group of Lebanese and Palestinian protesters on the other side cut through the border fence and briefly crossed. One Lebanese person was killed. Three rockets were fired toward Israel from neighbouring Syria, but they either landed in Syrian territory or in empty areas, Israeli media said. It was not immediately known who fired them.

Fears of a new uprising

The spiraling violence has raised fears of a new Palestinian intifada, or uprising, at a time when the peace process has been virtually nonexistent for years.

The tensions began in East Jerusalem earlier this month, with Palestinian protests against the Sheikh Jarrah evictions and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a holy site revered by Muslims and Jews located on a mount in the Old City.

Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital while Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, to be the capital of their future state.

Palestinian militant group Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday in an apparent attempt to present itself as the champion of the protesters.

The conflict spiraled from there.

Israel says it wants to inflict as much damage as it can on Hamas's military infrastructure in Gaza.

Israeli soldiers of an artillery unit gather on the Israeli side of the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip Friday.(Amir Cohen/Reuters)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed that Hamas would "pay a very heavy price" for its rocket attacks. Israel called up 9,000 reservists Thursday to join its troops massed at the Gaza border.

An Egyptian intelligence official said Israel had turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year ceasefire that Hamas had accepted. The official, who was close to Egypt's talks with both sides, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal negotiations.

U.S. attempt to de-escalate the tension

On Friday, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Israel-Palestinian affairs, Hady Amr, arrived in Israel as part of an attempt by Washington to de-escalate the conflict.

U.S. President Joe Biden gave a show of support to Netanyahu in a call a day earlier, saying "there has not been a significant overreaction" in Israel's response to Palestinian militants' rockets. He said the aim is to get a "significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks."

Smoke rises following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City on Thursday.(Hatem Moussa/The Associated Press)

Hamas has fired around 2,000 rockets toward Israel since Monday, according to the Israeli military. Most have been intercepted by anti-missile defences, but they have brought life to a standstill in southern Israeli cities, caused disruptions at airports and have set off air raid sirens in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, age 7 and under, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced their four-storey apartment building to rubble in the town of Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, residents said. Four strikes hit the building, Tanani's brother Fadi said. The building's owner and his wife also were killed.

"It was a massacre," said Sadallah Tanani, another relative. "My feelings are indescribable."

An Israeli woman reacts as she checks the damage inside her house hit by Palestinian rocket fire in the southern city of Ashkelon on Friday.(Jack Guez/AFP/Getty)

When the sun rose Friday, residents streamed out of the area in pickup trucks, on donkeys and on foot, taking pillows, blankets, pots and pans and bread. Thousands took shelter inside 16 schools run by the United Nations Relief Agency (UNWRA), agency spokesman Adnan Abu Hasna said.

Mohammed Ghabayen, who took refuge in a 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."

Israel aims to destroy tunnel network

Israeli military officials said the operation was a successful blow against the tunnel network. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said 160 warplanes operated in a "synchronized manner" for about 40 minutes as part of the operation.

He said the military aims to minimize collateral damage in striking military targets but that measures the military takes in other strikes, such as warning shots to get civilians to leave, were not "feasible this time."

Military correspondents in Israeli media said the military believed dozens of militants were killed inside the tunnels. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, but the Israeli military said the real number is far higher.

"We turned the tunnels, which they thought were death traps for our soldiers, into traps for them." Reserve Air Force Col. Koby Regev said on Israeli television.

Israeli border police stand guard on a street during clashes with Palestinians in East Jerusalem overnight Friday.(Ammar Awad/Reuters)

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