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Israel fires artillery into Gaza; death toll reaches 109

JERUSALEM: Israel fired artillery and mounted more air strikes on Friday against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip amid constant rocket fire deep into Israel’s commercial centre.

As hostilities entered their fifth day, with no sign of abating, the Israeli military said in a statement shortly after midnight that air and ground forces were attacking the Hamas-run enclave.  

Israeli armed forces said it was not a ground invasion and that troops were firing artillery from Israel’s side of the border. Residents of northern Gaza said they had seen no sign of Israeli ground forces inside the enclave but reported heavy artillery fire and dozens of air strikes.

The UN Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence between Israel and Palestinian militants on Sunday, diplomats said after the United States earlier objected to a meeting on Friday.

The sound of artillery fire and explosions echoed across northern and eastern parts of Gaza into early Friday morning. Witnesses said many families living in areas near the border quit their homes, some seeking shelter at United Nations-run schools. Violence also spread to mixed communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel, a new front in the long conflict prompting Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

At least 109 people were killed in Gaza, including 29 children, over the previous four days, Palestinian medical officials said. On Thursday alone, 52 Palestinians were killed in the enclave, the highest single-day figure since Monday.

Seven people were killed in Israel: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, five Israeli civilians, including two children, and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

Worried that the region’s worst hostilities in years could spiral out of control, the United States was sending in an envoy, Hady Amr. Truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had yet to deliver a sign of progress. US President Joe Biden called for a de-escalation of the violence, saying he wanted to see a significant reduction in rocket attacks.

Militants fired rocket salvoes at Tel Aviv and surrounding towns on Thursday, with the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepting many of them. Communities near the Gaza border and the southern desert city of Beersheba were also targeted. Five Israelis were wounded by a rocket that hit a building near Tel Aviv on Thursday.

Diplomats said the United States, a close ally of Israel, objected to a request by China, Norway and Tunisia for a public, virtual meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday to discuss the violence. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters such a meeting would be better next week to allow time for diplomacy in hopes of achieving a de-escalation.

Israeli military’s chief spokesman Brigadier-General Hidai Zilberman said attacks on rocket production and launching sites were “disrupting Hamas’ activities”, but still not to the point of stopping the barrages. He said between 80 and 90 militants had been killed in Israeli attacks.

Zilberman said Israel was “building up forces on the Gaza border”, a deployment that raised speculation about a possible ground invasion, a move that would recall similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and in 2009.

Israeli military affairs correspondents have said however that a major ground incursion is unlikely. Hamas armed wing spokesman Abu Ubaida responded to the troop buildup with defiance, urging Palestinians to rise up. So far some 1,750 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 300 fell short in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said.