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Dozens dead as Israel, Hamas escalate aerial bombardments

JERUSALEM: Hostilities escalated between Israel and Hamas, raising the death toll in two days to 32 Palestinians and three people in Israel, with Israel carrying out multiple air strikes in Gaza and the militant group firing rockets at Tel Aviv.

A 13-story residential building in Gaza collapsed after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, one of hundreds that Israel said it had carried out against Hamas targets. They were the most intensive aerial exchanges between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in Gaza, and prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.

UN 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 responsibility of de-escalation. “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,” he wrote.

Into the early hours of Wednesday morning, Gazans reported their homes shaking and the sky lighting up with Israeli attacks, outgoing rockets fired by Hamas and Islamic Jihad intercepted by Israeli air defence missiles.

Israelis ran for shelters or flattened themselves on pavements in communities more than 70 km up the coast amid sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky. Israel said hundreds of rockets had been fired by Palestinian militant groups.

In Tel Aviv, air raid sirens were heard around the city. For Israel, the targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with Hamas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that militants would pay a “very heavy” price for the rockets. 

Hamas said it was up to Israel to make the first move. The 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.”

Israel said it had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza, and dispatched infantry and armour to reinforce the tanks already gathered on the border. 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 research and development and military intelligence. Civilian residents in the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area before the airstrike which completely destroyed the building.

The tensions there have led to an increase in pro-Palestinian protests among Israel’s Arab minority. 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.

Netanyahu’s office agreed to a “declaration of a special state of emergency in Lod.” Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana said that 16 border police companies would be reassigned to Lod immediately from the occupied West Bank.

Lod Mayor Yair Revivo told Israeli media: “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.