Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza on Wednesday and Palestinian fighters fired multiple rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and the southern city of Beersheba in the region’s most intense hostilities in years.
At least 49 people have been killed in Gaza since violence escalated on Monday, according to the enclave's health ministry. Six people have been killed in Israel, medical officials said.
One multi-storey residential building in Gaza collapsed and another was heavily damaged after they were repeatedly hit by Israeli airstrikes.
Israel claimed its jets had targeted and killed several Hamas intelligence leaders early on Wednesday. Other strikes targeted what the military said were rocket launch sites, Hamas offices and the homes of Hamas leaders.
The heaviest offensive between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in the Hamas-ruled enclave has increased international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.
"Israel has gone crazy," said a man on a Gaza street, where people ran out of their homes as explosions rang out.
Smoke rises from a tower after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City May 12, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland tweeted: "Stop the fire immediately. We're escalating towards full-scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take responsibility of de-escalation.
"The cost of war in Gaza is devastating & is being paid by ordinary people. UN is working w/ all sides to restore calm. Stop the violence now," he wrote.
Gazans homes shook and the sky lit up from Israeli attacks, outgoing rockets and Israeli air defence missiles intercepting them. At least 30 explosions were heard within a matter of minutes just after dawn on Wednesday.
Israelis ran for shelters or flattened themselves on pavements in communities more than 70 km (45 miles) up the coast and into southern Israel amid sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky.
Smoke and flames rise during Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza May 12, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
In Gaza, 11 people were killed in Israeli strikes on Wednesday, the health ministry said.
In the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, two people were killed after a rocket hit a vehicle in the area. Lod and other mixed towns have been gripped by angry demonstrations over the Gaza violence and tensions in Jerusalem.
Hamas's armed wing said it fired 210 rockets towards Beersheba and Tel Aviv in response to the bombing of the tower buildings in Gaza City. Israel's military says that around a third of the rockets have fallen short, landing within Gaza.
For Israel, the groups targeting Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with Hamas.
Palestinians look on as they stand at the site where a building was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City May 11, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramazan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the compound revered by Jews as Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.
These escalated in recent days ahead of a – now postponed - court hearing in a case that could end with Palestinian families being forcefully evicted from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.
Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank, where a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli gunfire during stone-throwing clashes in a refugee camp near the city of Hebron.
A Palestinian man walks past a tower building that was destroyed in Israeli air strikes, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City May 12. PHOTO: REUTERS
'A VERY HEAVY PRICE'
There appeared no imminent end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that 'fighters' would pay a 'very heavy price' for the rockets, which reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating its capture of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.
The outbreak of hostilities led Netanyahu's political opponents to suspend negotiations on forming a coalition of right-wing, leftist and centre-left parties to unseat him after an inconclusive March 23 election.
Opposition leader Yair Lapid has three weeks left to establish a government, with a new election - and another chance for Netanyahu to retain power - likely if he fails.
A Palestinian demonstrator hurls stones towards Israeli forces during an anti-Israel protest amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank May 11, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
The Arab League, some of whose members have warmed ties with Israel over the last year, accused it of "indiscriminate and irresponsible" attacks in Gaza and said it was responsible for "dangerous escalation" in Jerusalem.
Hamas has named the current retaliation against Israeli aggression as "Sword of Jerusalem".
The group's leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel had “ignited a fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences."
Burnt vehicles are seen at the scene where a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip hit, in Holon, Israel May 11, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
Haniyeh said that Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had been in contact urging calm but that Hamas’s message to Israel was: "If they want to escalate, the resistance is ready, if they want to stop, the resistance is ready."
The White House, siding with Israel, said on Tuesday that Israel had a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Tel Aviv over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem must be a place of coexistence.
The United States was delaying UN Security Council efforts to issue a public statement on escalating tensions because it could be harmful to behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with the US strategy.
A member of the security forces speaks with a man at the scene where a rocket launched from the Gaza Strip hit, in Holon, Israel May 11, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
State Department spokesperson Ned Price urged calm and "restraint on both sides", saying: "The loss of life, the loss of Israeli life, the loss of Palestinian life, It's something that we deeply regret."
He added: "We are urging this message of de-escalation to see this loss of life come to an end."
PLUMES OF BLACK SMOKE
Israel said it had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza, and dispatched infantry and armour to reinforce the tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of the last Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks in 2014.
More than 2,100 Gazans were killed in the seven-week war that followed, according to the Gaza health ministry, along with 73 Israelis, and thousands of homes in Gaza were razed by Israeli forces.
Video footage on Tuesday showed three plumes of thick, black smoke rising from a 13-story Gaza residential and office block as it toppled over after being demolished by Israeli airstrikes.
A large fire is seen near the scene of what officials said was a Gaza rocket attack on an Israeli energy pipeline near Ashkelon, Israel May 12, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
The Israeli military claimed the building, in Gaza City's Rimal neighbourhood, housed "multiple" Hamas offices, including ones for military research and development and military intelligence.
The existence of one Hamas office, used by political leaders and officials dealing with the news media, was widely known locally.
Residents in the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area before the airstrike, according to witnesses and the Israeli military.
A second residential and office building in the same neighbourhood was heavily damaged in Israeli attacks shortly before 2 a.m. on Wednesday. Residents and journalists working in the building had already left.
On Tuesday Gaza health ministry officials put the death toll at 32, but a Hamas-affiliated radio station later said three more people, including a woman and a child, were killed shortly before 2 a.m. on Wednesday in an Israeli airstrike on an apartment above a restaurant.
Plumes of smoke rise during Israeli air strikes amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza May 12, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS
Israeli political leaders and the military said they had killed "dozens" of fighters, and hit buildings used by Hamas.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel had carried out "hundreds" of strikes, and that "buildings will continue to crumble."
Gaza's health ministry said that of the people reported dead, 10 were children and one was a woman.
Israel's Magen David Adom ambulance service said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, and that two women had been killed in rocket strikes on Ashkelon.
Israeli firefighters, security and rescue forces stand next to a burning bus and car that were hit by a rocket fired from Gaza towards Holon, Israel May 11, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS