May 16th 2021
The fourth war between Israel and Palestine escalated on Sunday when Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City flattened three buildings and killed at least 42 people, Palestinian medics said. Yet despite international efforts to broker a cease-fire and the rising death toll (mostly on the Palestinian side) Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled the fourth war with Gaza's Hamas rulers - which was sparked by unrest in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, and has seen the death toll in the densely-populated Gaza Strip rise to 181, and to 10 in Israel - would rage on.
Speaking in a televised address, Netanyahu said on Sunday evening that the attacks were continuing at "full-force" and will "take time." Israel "wants to levy a heavy price" from the Hamas militant group, he said, flanked by his defense minister and political rival, Benny Gantz, in a show of unity even as a growing chorus of skeptics is asking if Netanyahu is just killing innocent people as a diversion from his own political scandals and as a means to stay in power.
Sunday's airstrikes hit a major downtown street of residential buildings and storefronts over the course of five minutes after midnight, destroying two adjacent buildings and one about 50 yards (meters) down the road. According to AP, whose HQ in Gaza was flattened following an Israeli attack on Saturday, the Israeli air assault early Sunday was the deadliest single attack since heavy fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas nearly a week ago, marking the worst fighting here since their devastating 2014 war in Gaza.
The Gaza Health Ministry said 16 women and 10 children were among those killed, with more than 50 people wounded, and rescue efforts are still underway. Earlier, the Israeli military said it destroyed the home of Gaza's top Hamas leader, Yahiyeh Sinwar, in a separate strike in the southern town of Khan Younis. It was the third such attack in the last two days on the homes of senior Hamas leaders, who have gone underground. The military also said Sunday it also struck the home of Sinwar's brother Muhammad, another senior Hamas member. On Saturday it destroyed the home of Khalil al-Hayeh, a senior figure in Hamas' political branch. However, since Hamas' leaders have gone into hiding in Gaza in response to the strikes, it is unlikely any were at home at the time of the strikes. Hamas' top leader, Ismail Haniyeh, divides his time between Turkey and Qatar, both of which provide political support to the group.
Meanwhile, the Israeli army said on Sunday that Israel has faced the highest-ever rate of rocket attacks on its territory during its latest confrontation with the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas that controls Gaza. Since Monday, armed groups in Gaza have fired about 3,000 rockets towards Israel, surpassing the pace during an escalation in 2019 and during the 2006 war with Lebanon's Hizbollah, said Major-General Ori Gordin, as reported by AFP. Maj-Gen Gordin, commander of Israel's home front, presented a graphic to reporters with data of rockets fired toward Israel in past years and now.
During an escalation in November 2019 between the army and the Islamic Jihad group, 570 rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel over three days.
And in the 2006 war with the Iran-backed Hizbollah, a total of 4,500 rockets were fired at Israel over 19 days, according to the data Maj-Gen Gordin shared with reporters.
Asked if the pace since Monday was the highest-ever rate of rocket attacks on Israeli territory, Maj-Gen Gordin said: "Not only do I agree, this is what I present."
The AP speculates that Israel has stepped up strikes in recent days to inflict as much damage as possible on Hamas as international mediators work to end the fighting and stave off an Israeli ground invasion in Gaza. But targeting the group's leaders could hinder those efforts. A U.S. diplomat is in the region to try to de-escalate tensions, and the U.N. Security Council is meeting Sunday.
In recent days, Israeli airstrikes leveled a number of Gaza City's tallest office and residential buildings, alleging they contain Hamas military infrastructure. On Saturday, Israel bombed the 12-story al-Jalaa Building, which housed the offices of The Associated Press, the TV network Al-Jazeera and other media outlets, along with several floors of apartments.
With the Israeli assault showing no signs of easing, Al Jazeera journalists report that Gaza's healthcare system is on the verge of collapsing, with no space left in hospital rooms.
As we reported previously, the latest outbreak of violence began in east Jerusalem last month, when Palestinian protests and clashes with police broke out in response to Israeli police tactics during Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers. A focal point of clashes was the Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint that is located on a hilltop compound that is revered by both Muslims and Jews. Then on Monday, Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem triggering the Israeli assault on impoverished Gaza, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians and has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
At least 188 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, including 55 children and 33 women, with 1,230 people wounded. Eight people in Israel have been killed, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier.
Speaking alongside Netanyahu on Sunday, Israel's military chief, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, said Hamas did not anticipate Israel's overwhelming response to its rocket fire. "Hamas made a serious and grave mistake and didn't read us properly." The turmoil has also spilled over elsewhere, fueling protests in the occupied West Bank and stoking violence within Israel between its Jewish and Arab citizens, with clashes and vigilante attacks on people and property.
The violence has sparked numerous pro-Palestinian protests in cities across Europe and the United States, with French police firing tear gas and water cannons at demonstrators in Paris.
Meanwhile, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group have acknowledged 20 fighters killed since the fighting broke out Monday. Israel says the real number is far higher and has released the names and photos of two dozen alleged operatives it says were "eliminated." An Egyptian diplomat said Israel's targeting of Hamas political leaders would complicate cease-fire efforts. The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the closed-door negotiations, said Cairo is working to broker an end to the fighting, as are other international actors.
The Egyptian diplomat said the destruction of Hamas' rocket capabilities would require a ground invasion that would "inflame the whole region." Egypt, which made peace with Israel decades ago, has threatened to "suspend" cooperation in various fields, the official said, without elaborating.
In recent days, the Biden administration affirmed its support for Israel while working to de-escalate the crisis. American diplomat Hady Amr met with Gantz, the Israeli defense minister, who thanked the U.S. for its support. Gantz said Israel "takes every precaution to strike at military targets only and avoid harming civilians, while its civilians are the targets of indiscriminate attack."