Israeli air strikes hammered the Gaza Strip Monday after a week of violence that has left nearly 200 people dead, the large majority Palestinian, many of them children, despite international calls for de-escalation.
Before dawn, in the space of just a few minutes, dozens of Israeli strikes bombarded the crowded coastal Palestinian enclave controlled by Islamist group Hamas, according to journalists and the army.
Flames lit up the sky as intense explosions shook Gaza city, sparking widespread power cuts and damaging hundreds of buildings, local authorities said. No casualties were immediately reported.
Some 3,100 rockets have also been fired by Palestinian militants toward Israel since conflict escalated on May 10 in the heaviest exchange of fire between the rivals in years, sparked by unrest in Jerusalem.
On Monday morning, Gaza saw huge plumes of grey smoke billow from a mattress foam factory, as civil defence members aimed high-pressure water hoses at the blaze.
“There have never been strikes of this magnitude,” he said.
Gaza resident Mani Qazaat said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “should realise we’re civilians, not fighters”.
“I felt like I was dying,” he said.
Israel’s army said in a statement that it hit the homes of nine “high-ranking” Hamas commanders, without providing details on casualties.
The overnight bombardment also included a third round of strikes on what the army calls the “Metro,” its term for a Hamas underground tunnel network.
Fifty-four fighter jets pounded 15 kilometres (nine miles) of tunnels, which the army has previously acknowledged runs in part through civilian areas.
The renewed strikes come a day after 42 Palestinians in Gaza — including at least eight children and two doctors, according to the health ministry — were killed in the worst daily death toll in the enclave since the bombardments began.
The new strikes came after the UN Security Council and Muslim nations convened emergency meetings Sunday to demand a stop to civilian bloodshed.
President Joe Biden gave no signs of pressuring Israel to agree to an immediate cease-fire despite new calls from some Democrats for the Biden administration to get more involved. His ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told an emergency high-level meeting of the Security Council that the United States was “working tirelessly through diplomatic channels” to stop the fighting.
But as fighting in Israel and Gaza surged to its worst levels since 2014 and the international outcry grew, the Biden administration — determined to wrench US foreign policy focus away from the Middle East and Afghanistan — showed no immediate sign of deepening its involvement. Diplomatic appeals by other countries for Hamas and Israel to stop their fire showed no sign of progress.
Thomas-Greenfield warned that the return to armed conflict would only put a negotiated two-state solution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict even further out of reach. And in Israel, Hady Amr, a deputy assistant dispatched by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to try to de-escalate the crisis, met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who thanked the US for its support.
Blinken himself headed out Sunday on an unrelated tour of Nordic countries. He made calls from the plane to Egypt and other nations working to broker a cease-fire, telling Egypt that all parties “should de-escalate tensions and bring a halt to the violence.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, on Sunday joined Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent, in calling on Biden to step up pressure on both sides to end current fighting and revive talks to resolve Israel’s conflicts and flashpoints with the Palestinians.
“I think the administration needs to push harder on Israel and the Palestinian Authority to stop the violence, bring about a cease-fire, end these hostilities, and get back to a process of trying to resolve this long-standing conflict,” Schiff, a California Democrat, told CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The Biden Administration can and should do more to stop the pain and suffering of Israelis and Palestinians. I led a group of Jewish Members on a letter to @POTUS urging immediate de-escalation and diplomatic engagement. pic.twitter.com/f6pUGz1xTy
— Rep. Nadler (@RepJerryNadler) May 14, 2021
Biden administration officials have urged calm but said nothing publicly about prodding Israel immediately to go along with a push by Egypt and others for a cease-fire. Thomas-Greenfield said US diplomats were engaging with Israel, Egypt and Qatar, along with the UN.
Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City flattened three buildings and killed at least 42 people Sunday, medics said, bringing the toll since Hamas and Israel opened their air and artillery battles to at least 188 killed in Gaza and eight in Israel. Some 55 children in Gaza and a 5-year-old boy in Israel were among the dead.
Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu told Israelis in a televised address Sunday that Israel “wants to levy a heavy price” on Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers. That will “take time,” Netanyahu said, signaling the war would rage on for now.
Representatives of Muslim nations met to demand Israel halt attacks that are killing Palestinian civilians in the crowded Gaza strip.
The meeting of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation also saw Turkey and some others criticize a US-backed push under which the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and other Islamic nations signed bilateral deals with Israel to normalize their relations, stepping over the wreckage of moribund international efforts to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians long-term.
“The massacre of Palestinian children today follows the purported normalization,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said.
At the virtual meeting of the Security Council, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the UN was actively engaging all parties for an immediate cease-fire.
Returning to the scenes of Palestinian militant rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes in the fourth such war between Israel and Hamas, “only perpetuates the cycles of death, destruction and despair, and pushes farther to the horizon any hopes of coexistence and peace,” Guterres said.
Eight foreign ministers spoke at the Security Council session, reflecting the seriousness of the conflict, with almost all urging an end to the fighting. Efforts by China, Norway and Tunisia to get the UN’s most powerful body to issue a statement, including a call for the cessation of hostilities, have been blocked so far by the United States, Israel’s closest ally. Diplomats say the US is concerned it could interfere with diplomatic efforts to stop the violence.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, had thrown US support solidly behind Israel, enthusiastically welcoming Netanyahu as an ally in Trump’s focus on confronting Iran. Trump gave little time to efforts by past US administrations to push peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, instead encouraging and rewarding Arab nations that signed two-country normalizations deals with Israel.
Biden, instead, calls Middle East and Central Asia conflicts a distraction from US foreign policy priorities, including competition with China.
He’s sought to calm some conflicts and extricate the US from others, including ending US military support for a Saudi-led war in Yemen, planning to pull US troops from Afghanistan, and trying to return to a nuclear deal with Iran.
Biden officials haven’t listed deeper Israel-Palestinian peace efforts at the top of their agenda.
The problem won’t go away, said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for the Middle East in the Obama administration.
Current fighting “reveals how deeply unstable is the ‘status quo’ between Israelis and Palestinians, and how urgently a new political path is needed to move this conflict toward negotiated resolution,” she said.