GAZA/JERUSALEM—Hostilities between Hamas and Israel escalated on Tuesday, raising the death toll in two days to 32 Palestinians and three people in Israel, with the terrorist group firing rockets at Tel Aviv and Israel carrying out multiple air strikes in Gaza.
A pipeline belonging to an Israeli state-owned energy company was hit in a rocket attack from Gaza late on Tuesday, an Israeli government official and an energy sector official told Reuters. Video broadcast by Channel 12 showed flames rising from what appeared to be a large fuel vat near the Israeli Mediterranean city of Ashkelon, south of Tel Aviv. Operations at a power plant in Ashkelon were not interrupted, Channel 13 TV said.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) on Twitter said at 3:22 a.m. local time, “Terrorists in Gaza are firing rockets non-stop as civilians in central and southern Israel spend their night in shelters to protect themselves from rocket fire.” In another slightly earlier post, the group wrote, “It’s 3AM and more rockets are being fired at Tel Aviv. Families are being woken up & rushed to bomb shelters.”
Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with Israeli attacks, outgoing rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Israeli air defence missiles intercepting them into the early hours of Wednesday morning.
Israelis ran for shelters or flattened themselves on pavements in communities more than 45 miles up the coast amid sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by the terrorist groups.
In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens were heard around the city. For Israel, the terrorists’ targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamic Hamas group.
In the late hours of Tuesday, the IDF had posted a message addressed to citizens of Gaza saying that it is “striking Hamas weapons stores hidden inside civilian buildings in Gaza.” The Israeli military added, “Although Hamas wants to put you in harm’s way, we urge you to stay away from Hamas’ weapons sites and get to safety. Our goal is only to strike terror.”
A 13-story residential building in Gaza had collapsed after it was hit by an Israeli air strike, one of hundreds that Israel said it had carried out against Hamas targets.
The aerial exchanges between Israel and Hamas appeared to have escalated to a most intensive state since a 2014 war in Gaza, and prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.
U.N. Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland tweeted, “Stop the fire immediately. We’re escalating towards a full scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation. He added, “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.”
The U.N. Security called for emergency consultations for Wednesday on the escalating violence between Palestinians and Israelis. Wennesland is expected to brief the 15 council members virtually at the closed meeting, which is being called at the request of China, Tunisia and Norway.
The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, 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 evicted from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.
‘A Very Heavy Price’
There appeared no imminent end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that terrorists 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.
“We are at the height of a weighty campaign,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks, adding, “Hamas and Islamic Jihad paid … and will pay a very heavy price for their belligerence.”
Hamas—seeking the opportunity to marginalize Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to present itself as the guardians of Palestinians in Jerusalem—said it was up to Israel to make the first move.
The terrorist group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel had “ignited fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences.” 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 said on Tuesday that Israel had a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem must be a place of coexistence.
The United States was delaying U.N. 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 U.S. strategy.State Department spokesman 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 the 13-story Gaza block as it toppled over. Nobody was reported killed in the building.
The Israeli military said the demolished multi-story 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 in the building, used by political leaders and officials dealing with the news media, was widely known locally.
Civilian residents in the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area before the air strike, according to witnesses and the Israeli military. The air strike completely destroyed the building.
People in other blocks reported that they received warnings from Israel to evacuate ahead of a possible attack.
Israeli political leaders and the military said they had killed “dozens” of terrorists, and hit buildings used by Hamas.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel had carried out “hundreds” or strikes, and that “buildings will continue to crumble.”
Gaza’s health ministry said that of the 30 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.
Clashes at Al-Aqsa on Monday morning were the immediate backdrop to the escalation. More than 300 Palestinians were injured in confrontations with Israeli police, the Palestine Red Crescent Society said. Police said 21 officers were hurt.
Jerusalem’s Old City, with places sacred to Jews, Muslims, and Christians, is the most sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel claims all of Jerusalem as its capital, a status not generally recognized internationally. Palestinians want East Jerusalem—captured by Israel in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war—as the capital of a future state.
The tensions there have led to an increase in pro-Palestinian protests among Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority, who are Israeli by citizenship but Palestinian by heritage and culture.
In the ethnically mixed Israeli town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, witnesses quoted by Israeli media said one or two armed Jews shot at rioting Arabs, killing one and wounding two. The dead man’s father told the Walla news site he had been ambushed while on a family visit.
The accounts could not be confirmed. Israeli police said they had arrested two suspects in the incident.
Netanyahu’s office agreed to a “declaration of a special state of emergency in Lod.” Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana said on Twitter that 16 border police companies would be reassigned to Lod immediately from the occupied West Bank.
Lod Mayor Yair Revivo told Israeli Channel 12 News: “We have lost control of the city and the streets.”In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian and injured another on Tuesday after they shot towards Israeli troops near Nablus, Israeli and Palestinian officials said.
The International Committee of the Red Cross urged all sides to step back, and reminded them of the requirement in international law to try to avoid civilian casualties.
By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Stephen Farrell
Epoch Times staff contributed to this report.