Palestinians flee as Israeli artillery pounds northern Gaza

AP/Gaza City
Filed on May 14, 2021
Palestinians gather at the site of destroyed houses in the aftermath of Israeli air and artillery strikes in the northern Gaza Strip. — Reuters

Toll from Israel-Palestinian fighting rises to 119, including 31 children and 19 women

Palestinians grabbed their children and belongings and fled neighbourhoods on the outskirts of Gaza City on Friday as Israel unleashed a heavy barrage of tank fire and airstrikes, killing a family of six in their home. Israel said it was clearing a network of militant tunnels ahead of a possible ground invasion.

Israel has massed troops along the border and called up 9,000 reservists as fighting intensifies with Hamas. Palestinian militants have fired some 1,800 rockets, and the Israeli military has launched more than 600 airstrikes, toppling at least three high-rise apartment buildings, and has shelled some areas with tanks stationed near the frontier.

As Israel and Hamas plunged closer to all-out war despite international efforts at a ceasefire, communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night. Jewish and Arab mobs clashed in the flashpoint town of Lod, even after Israel dispatched additional security forces.

The Gaza Health Ministry says the toll from the fighting has risen to 119 killed, including 31 children and 19 women, with 830 wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a six-year-old boy and a soldier.

Before dawn on Friday, Israeli tanks and warplanes carried out an intense barrage on the northern end of the Gaza Strip.

In the darkness, Houda Ouda and her extended family ran frantically inside their home in the town of Beit Hanoun, trying to find shelter as the earth shook for two and half hours, Ouda recalled.

“We even did not dare to look from the window to know what is being hit,” she said. When daylight came, she saw the swath of destruction outside: Streets cratered, buildings crushed, their facades torn off, an olive tree burned bare, dust and powered concrete covering everything.

Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, aged 7 and under, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced their four-story apartment building to rubble in the neighbouring town of Beit Lahia, residents said. Four strikes hit the building at 11pm, just before the family was going to sleep, Rafat’s brother Fadi said. The building’s owner and his wife were also killed.

“It was a massacre,” said Sadallah Tanani, another relative. “My feelings are indescribable.”

Lt-Col Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the operation involved tank fire and airstrikes, aimed at destroying a network of tunnels beneath Gaza City that the military refers to as “the Metro,” used by militants to evade surveillance and airstrikes.

“As always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimise collateral damage and civilian casualties,” he said. “Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn’t feasible this time.”

When the sun rose, residents streamed out of the area in pick-up trucks, on donkeys and on foot, taking pillows, blankets, pots and pans and bread. “We were terrified for our children, who were screaming and shaking,” said Hedaia Maarouf, who fled with her extended family of 19 people, including 13 children.

Thousands crowded into 16 UN-run schools for shelter, said Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesman for UNRWA, the UN relief agency for Palestinians.

Mohammed Ghabayen, who took shelter in one school with his family, said his children had eaten nothing since the day before, and they had no mattresses to sleep on. “And this is in the shadow of the coronavirus crisis,” he said. “We don’t know whether to take precautions for the coronavirus or the rockets or what to do exactly.

The strikes came after Egyptian mediators rushed to Israel for ceasefire talks that showed no signs of progress. Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations were leading the truce efforts.

An Egyptian intelligence official with knowledge of the talks said Israel rejected an Egyptian proposal for a yearlong truce with Hamas and other Gaza militants, which would have started at midnight on Thursday had Israel agreed. He said Hamas had accepted the proposal.

The official said Israel wants to delay a cease-fire to give time to destroy more of Hamas’ and Islamic Jihad’s military capabilities.

The violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Jerusalem and other mixed cities across Israel has added a new layer of volatility to the conflict not seen in more than two decades.

The violence continued overnight into Friday. A Jewish man was shot and seriously wounded in Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, and Israeli media said a second Jewish man was shot. In the Tel Aviv neighborhood of Jaffa, an Israeli soldier was attacked by a group of Arabs and hospitalized in serious condition.

The number of Palestinians killed by Israeli fire during clashes in the occupied West Bank on Friday has now risen to 10, the Palestinian health ministry said.

Violent protests have erupted across the territory, with mainly young Palestinians hurling stones, Molotov cocktails and other projectiles at Israeli forces who have responded with tear gas, rubber bullet and live rounds, multiple sources said.

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