Israel unleashed another wave of airstrikes across the Gaza Strip early Thursday, killing at least one Palestinian and wounding several, as it pushed ahead despite U.S. calls to wind down the offensive against Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers, who have fired thousands of rockets at Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is facing mounting pressure from his country’s closest ally but appears determined to inflict maximum damage on Hamas in a war that could help save his political career. Still, diplomatic efforts to negotiate a cease-fire gathered pace, and a senior Hamas official said he expected a truce soon.
Explosions shook Gaza City and orange flares lit up the pre-dawn sky, with bombing raids also reported in the central town of Deir al-Balah and the southern town of Khan Younis. As the sun rose, residents surveyed the rubble from at least five family homes destroyed in Khan Younis. There were also heavy airstrikes on a commercial thoroughfare in Gaza City.
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The Israeli military said it struck at least three homes of Hamas commanders in Khan Younis and another in Rafah, targeting “military infrastructure,” as well as a weapons storage unit at a home in Gaza City.
An Israeli airstrike smashed into the Khawaldi family’s two-story house in Khan Younis, destroying it. The 11 residents, who were sleeping outside of the home out of fear, were all wounded and hospitalized, said Shaker al-Khozondar, a neighbor.
Shrapnel also hit own home, killing his aunt and wounding her daughter and two other relatives, he said. Al-Khozondar spoke from his aunt Hoda’s bedroom where she had died. The windows were shattered and the bed pillows and rubble were stained with blood.
Weam Fares, a spokesman for a nearby hospital, confirmed the death and said at least 10 people were wounded in strikes overnight.
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Heavy airstrikes also pummeled a street in the Jabaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza, destroying ramshackle homes with corrugated metal roofs nearby. The military said it struck two underground launchers in the camp used to fire rockets at Tel Aviv.
“Never in my life have I seen such destruction,” said Ibrahim Afana, 44. “We didn’t even have three minutes to put a slipper on our foot,” he said, describing his family’s panicked flight after they were awakened by the bombing. He said the army had called some residents to warn them about the impending strikes. There were no reports of casualties.
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The current round of fighting between Israel and Hamas began May 10, when the militant group fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem after days of clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a flashpoint site sacred to Jews and Muslims. Heavy-handed police tactics at the compound and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers had inflamed tensions.
Since then, Israel has launched hundreds of airstrikes that it says have targeted Hamas’ infrastructure, including a vast tunnel network. Hamas and other militant groups embedded in residential areas have fired over 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities, with hundreds falling short and most of the rest intercepted.
At least 230 Palestinians have been killed, including 65 children and 39 women, with 1,710 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians. Hamas and militant group Islamic Jihad say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is at least 130. Some 58,000 Palestinians have fled their homes.
Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy, a 16-year-old girl and a soldier, have been killed. The military said an anti-tank missile fired from Gaza hit an empty bus near the frontier on Thursday, lightly wounding an Israeli soldier.
As the casualty toll mounted in the worst fighting since Israel and Hamas’ 2014 war, U.S. President Joe Biden pressed Israel to wind down its operation — but Netanyahu pushed back. It marked the first public rift between the two close allies since the fighting began and could complicate international efforts to reach a cease-fire. His pushback also poses a difficult test of the U.S.-Israel relationship early in Biden’s presidency.
Netanyahu said Wednesday he appreciated “the support of the American president,” but that Israel would push ahead to return “calm and security” to its citizens. He said he was “determined to continue this operation until its aim is met.”
Biden had earlier told Netanyahu that he expected “a significant de-escalation today on the path to a cease-fire,” the White House said.
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Biden had previously avoided pressing Israel more directly and publicly for a cease-fire with Hamas. But pressure has been building for Biden to intervene more forcefully as other diplomatic efforts gather strength.
Egyptian negotiators have also been working to halt the fighting, and an Egyptian diplomat said top officials were waiting for Israel’s response to a cease-fire offer. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
Moussa Abu Marzouk, a top Hamas official, told the Lebanese Mayadeen TV that he expected a cease-fire in a day or two.
Visiting the region, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said Israel has “the right to defend itself against such unacceptable attacks.” But he also expressed concern about the rising number of civilian victims and support for truce efforts.
Since the fighting began, Gaza’s infrastructure, already weakened by a 14-year blockade, has rapidly deteriorated. Medical supplies, water and fuel for electricity are running low in the territory, on which Israel and Egypt imposed the blockade after Hamas seized power in 2007.
Israeli attacks have damaged at least 18 hospitals and clinics and destroyed one health facility, the World Health Organization said. Nearly half of all essential drugs have run out.
© 2021 The Canadian Press