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Palestinian Israeli conflict

Israel launches new attack on Gaza as PM Netanyahu says airstrikes will continue

Published: Updated:

Israel pounded Gaza on Saturday, destroying a tower block that housed news media organizations, while Palestinian rocket salvoes hit Tel Aviv.

It came on a sixth day of hostilities in which Palestinians say at least 145 people, including 41 children, have been killed in Gaza since the conflict began. Israel has reported 10 dead, including two children.

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The 12-storey block in Gaza City brought down by Israeli air strikes housed the US Associated Press and Qatar-based Al Jazeera media operations.

However, the Israel military said it was a legitimate military target, containing Hamas military offices, and that it had given warnings to civilians to get out of the building before the attack.

Combination picture shows a tower building housing AP, Al Jazeera offices collapsing after it was destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza. (Reuters)
Combination picture shows a tower building housing AP, Al Jazeera offices collapsing after it was destroyed by Israeli air strikes in Gaza. (Reuters)

The strike was condemned by the AP and Al Jazeera, and the US told Israel “that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

Israel bombed the home of Khalil al-Hayeh, a senior figure in Hamas’ political branch, saying the building served as part of the group’s “terrorist infrastructure.” There was no immediate report on al-Hayeh’s fate or on any casualties.

The bombing of al-Hayeh's home showed Israel was expanding its campaign beyond just the group’s military commanders. Israel says it has killed dozens in Hamas’ military branch, though Hamas and the smaller group Islamic Jihad have only acknowledged 20 dead members.

US President Joe Biden later spoke to both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in an effort to restore calm.

But both Israel and Hamas insisted they would pursue their campaigns, leaving no end to the hostilities in sight despite a UN Security Council meeting scheduled for Sunday to discuss the worse outbreak of Israel-Palestinian violence in years.

Smoke and flame rise during Israeli air strikes, as cross-border violence between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants continues, in Gaza City, May 14, 2021. (Reuters)
Smoke and flame rise during Israeli air strikes, as cross-border violence between the Israeli military and Palestinian militants continues, in Gaza City, May 14, 2021. (Reuters)

“The party that bears the guilt for this confrontation is not us, it’s those attacking us,” Netanyahu said in a televised speech.

“We are still in the midst of this operation, it is still not over and this operation will continue as long as necessary.”

Netanyahu said Israel’s air and artillery barrage had eliminated dozens of Hamas militants and taken out “hundreds” of the Islamist militant group’s sites including missile launchers and a vast tunnel network.

Hamas began its rocket assault on Monday after weeks of tensions over a court case to evict several Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near the city’s Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

A firefighter walks at a site where a rocket fired from Gaza has landed in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel May 15, 2021. (Reuters)
A firefighter walks at a site where a rocket fired from Gaza has landed in Ramat Gan, near Tel Aviv, Israel May 15, 2021. (Reuters)

Speaking to crowds of protesters in the Qatari capital of Doha, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said on Saturday the fighting was primarily about Jerusalem.

“The Zionists thought ... they could demolish Al-Aqsa mosque. They thought they could displace our people in Sheikh Jarrah,” said Haniyeh.

“I say to Netanyahu: do not play with fire,” he continued, amid cheers from the crowd. “The title of this battle today, the title of the war, and the title of the intifada, is Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” using the Arabic word for ‘uprising’.

Air war

On Saturday, the Israeli military said around 2,300 rockets had been fired from Gaza since Monday, with about 1,000 intercepted by missile defenses and 380 falling into the Gaza Strip.

Israel has launched more than 1,000 air and artillery strikes into the densely populated coastal strip, saying they were aimed at Hamas and other militant targets.

A streak of light is seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel May 15, 2021. (Reuters)
A streak of light is seen as Israel's Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepts rockets launched from the Gaza Strip towards Israel, as seen from Ashkelon, Israel May 15, 2021. (Reuters)

The bombardments have sent columns of smoke above Gaza City and lit up the enclave’s night sky.

Earlier this week the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, told Reuters the court was “monitoring very closely” the latest escalation of hostilities, amid an investigation now under way into alleged war crimes in earlier bouts of the conflict.

Netanyahu accused Hamas of “committing a double war crime” by targeting civilians, and using Palestinian civilians as “human shields.”

The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said on Saturday it had “serious concerns that the attacks caused disproportionate destruction of civilian property” in Gaza.

Failed diplomacy

Biden’s envoy, Hady Amr, arrived in Israel on Friday, before a meeting on Sunday of the UN Security Council.

But diplomacy has so far failed to quell the worst escalation in fighting between Israel and Palestinians since 2014.

The White House said Biden updated Netanyahu on “high-level” contacts with regional partners to restore calm, and raised concerns about the safety of journalists.

Biden also spoke with Abbas, for the first time since the US leader took office in January.

Both sides said Biden reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution to the conflict, and the White House said Biden was committed to “strengthening the US-Palestinian partnership”, which reached a nadir under the Trump administration.

But diplomatic efforts are complicated by the fact the

US and most western powers do not talk to Hamas, which they regard as a terrorist organization. And Abbas, whose power base is in the occupied West Bank, exerts little influence over Hamas in Gaza.

Israeli Border police officers scuffle with Palestinian protesters in East Jerusalem May 15, 2021. (Reuters)
Israeli Border police officers scuffle with Palestinian protesters in East Jerusalem May 15, 2021. (Reuters)

In Israel, the conflict has been accompanied by violence among the country’s mixed communities of Jews and Arabs. Synagogues have been attacked, Arab-owned shops vandalized and street fights have broken out. Israel’s president has warned of civil war.

Rachel El-Gazar walks inside her house that was damaged following a rocket fire from Gaza towards Israel in the city of Sderot, southern Israel May 15, 2021. (Reuters)
Rachel El-Gazar walks inside her house that was damaged following a rocket fire from Gaza towards Israel in the city of Sderot, southern Israel May 15, 2021. (Reuters)

Hamas said the latest strikes on Tel Aviv were in response to Israel’s overnight strikes on Gaza’s Beach refugee camp, where a woman and four of her children were killed in their house.

Five others died, medics said. Israel said it targeted an apartment used by Hamas.

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Watch: Israeli airstrike flattens building housing AP, other media offices in Gaza