Jerusalem: Israeli military massed thousands of troops backed by tanks at Gaza’s border on Thursday as air strikes battered the densely populated besieged enclave for the third straight day Friday. The tensions soared when Israeli forces attacked worshippers at Jerusalem’s Al Aqsa mosque in the last week of Ramazan.
Meanwhile, Palestinian resistance groups also pounded Israel with rockets, most of which have caused little damage in comparison to the death and destruction in Gaza by the US made sophisticated war planes.
At least 83 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Gaza since Monday while hundreds have been injured, medics said, further straining hospitals already under heavy pressure during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process has warned that the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory was “escalating towards a full-scale war”.
“Stop the fire immediately. We’re escalating towards a full-scale war”, Coordinator Tor Wennesland said in a post on Twitter.
Violence erupted on Monday after Israeli police fired tear gas canisters and stun grenades inside Al Aqsa, Islam’s third holiest site while people inside were praying on Lailat-al-Qadr, holiest night for Muslims. Tensions were already simmering over forced evictions of Palestinians from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in East Jerusalem by Jewish settlers who are backed by the Israeli state.
In renewed air strikes on Gaza, Israel struck a six-storey residential building in Gaza City belonging to the elected government of Hamas movement.
Health authorities in Gaza said they were investigating the deaths of several people overnight who they said may have inhaled poisonous gas. Samples were being examined and they had yet to draw any final conclusions, they said.
“We are facing Israel and Covid-19. We are in between two enemies,” said Asad Karam, 20, a construction worker, standing beside a road damaged during the air strikes. An electricity pole had collapsed by the road, its wires severed.
In retaliatory attacks to the Al-Aqsa raids and Gaza air strikes, resistance groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad launched barrage of rockets this time hitting Israeli airports resulting in the suspension of air traffic to Israel. Fighters targeted Israel’s Ramon Airport near the Red Sea resort city of Eilat while one rocket crashed into a building near Israel’s commercial capital of Tel Aviv, injuring five Israelis, reports said. Sirens blared in cities across southern Israel, sending thousands running for shelters.
Seven people have been killed in Israel, its military said.
“All of Israel is under attack. It’s a very scary situation to be in,” said Margo Aronovic, a 26-year-old student, in Tel Aviv.
A number of foreign carriers have cancelled flights to Israel because of the rocket attacks on Tel Aviv.
Fighters targeted Israel’s Ramon Airport near the Red Sea resort city of Eilat in the southern part of the Israeli occupied territories, suspending operations there.
Abu Ubaida, a spokesman for the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’ military wing, told Arabic-language al-Aqsa TV on Thursday afternoon that an indigenous Ayyash 250 missile was launched towards the airport, stressing that his group’s missiles can reach any target in the Occupied Territories, the Palestinian Arabic-language Safa news agency reported.
The development came as US airlines began cancelling flights to Israel due to retaliatory rocket attacks.
United Airlines, American Airlines and Delta Airlines all said they were cancelling flights to Tel Aviv, The New York Times reported on Wednesday.
European airlines cancel Tel Aviv flights amid escalating conflict
Moreover, British Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Iberia all canceled flights to Tel Aviv as European carriers joined US airlines in avoiding flying to the Occupied Territories amid an escalating conflict there.
Israel has prepared combat troops along the Gaza border and was in “various stages of preparing ground operations”, a military spokesman said, a move that would recall similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2008-2009.
With concern growing that the violence that flared on Monday could spiral out of control, the United States is sending an envoy, Hady Amr, to the region. But efforts to end the worst attacks by Israel in years appear so far to have made no progress.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to “continue acting to strike at the military capabilities of Hamas” and other Gaza groups.
“This is just the beginning,” warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We’ll deliver them blows they haven’t dreamt of.” Gaza militants have launched more than 1,000 rockets since Monday, said Israel’s army, which has carried out hundreds of air strikes on Islamic groups in the crowded coastal enclave of Gaza.
On Wednesday, Israeli forces killed a senior Hamas commander and bombed several buildings, including high-rises and a bank, which Israel said was linked to the faction’s activities.
Hamas signalled defiance, with its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, saying: “The confrontation with the enemy is open-ended.”
In the fighting inside Israel, where some in the 21 per cent Arab minority have mounted pro-Palestinian protests, attacks by Jews on Arabs passing by in ethnically mixed areas have worsened.
Over 150 arrests were made overnight in Lod and Arab towns in northern Israel, police said.
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