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Israel-Palestinian Conflict Escalates as Rockets Fly, Riots Flare; Death Toll Rises in Gaza

Smoke rises during an Israeli air strike, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City on Thursday. (Reuters)

Smoke rises during an Israeli air strike, amid a flare-up of Israeli-Palestinian violence, in Gaza City on Thursday. (Reuters)

A state of emergency has been declared in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, where an Arab resident was shot dead and a synagogue has been torched.

Israel faced an escalating conflict on two fronts Thursday, scrambling to quell riots between Arabs and Jews on its own streets after days of exchanging deadly fire with Islamist militants in Gaza.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz ordered a “massive reinforcement" of security forces to quell mob violence across the country, where police stations have been attacked and people savagely beaten on both sides.

Despite global alarm and diplomatic efforts to halt the spiralling violence, which US President Joe Biden said he hoped would end “sooner than later", hundreds of rockets again tore through the skies over the Gaza Strip overnight. 

Israel’s air force launched multiple strikes with fighter jets, targeting what it described as locations linked to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza. 

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In Gaza, 83 people were reported killed since Monday — including 17 children — and more than 480 people wounded as heavy bombardment has rocked the crowded coastal enclave and brought down entire tower blocks.

The Israeli military said it had struck Gaza targets more than 600 times, while Hamas had fired over 1,600 rockets towards Israel. 

Israel’s civil aviation authority said it had diverted all incoming passenger flights headed for Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport to Ramon airport in the south, as air raid warnings once more went off across Israel. 

In southern Israel, seven people were killed, including one six-year-old, after a rocket struck a family home, the United Hatzalah volunteer rescue service said.

Recent days have seen the most intense hostilities in seven years between Israel and Gaza’s armed groups, triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.

The unrest has been driven by anger over the looming evictions of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.

‘Preventing pogroms’

Coinciding with the aerial bombardments is surging violence between Arabs and Jews inside Israel.

Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP that violence was at a nadir not seen for decades and that police were “literally preventing pogroms from taking place". 

Hundreds were protesting in the Arab town of Kafr Kassem in central Israel, burning tires and torching police vehicles, he said. He added that nearly 1,000 border police were called in to quell the violence, and that more than 400 people had been arrested. 

On Wednesday night, Israeli far-right groups took to the streets across the country, clashing with security forces and Arab Israelis. Police said they had responded to violent incidents in multiple towns, including Lod, Acre and Haifa. 

Israeli television Wednesday aired footage of a far-right mob beating a man they considered an Arab until he lay unconscious on his back in a street in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv.

“The victim of the lynching is seriously injured but stable," Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital said, without identifying him.

A state of emergency has been declared in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, where an Arab resident was shot dead and a synagogue has been torched.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in unusually strong language, denounced what he described as a “pogrom" in which “an incited and blood-thirsty Arab mob" had attacked sacred Jewish spaces.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “what has been happening these last few days in Israeli towns is unacceptable.

“Nothing justifies the lynching of Arabs by Jews, and nothing justifies the lynching of Jews by Arabs," he said, adding that Israel was fighting a battle “on two fronts".

Stalled diplomacy

The UN Security Council has held two closed-door videoconferences since Monday, with close Israeli ally Washington opposing adoption of a joint declaration, arguing it would not “help de-escalate" the situation.

Netanyahu spoke later Wednesday with Biden, who said that “Israel has a right to defend itself".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, urging an end to the rocket attacks by Islamist groups, and that a US envoy would travel to the Middle East to seek to calm tensions.

But the Israeli government has warned that “this is only the beginning", and military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said strikes on Gaza would continue as Israel prepares for “multiple scenarios".

“We have ground units that are prepared and are in various stages of preparing ground operations," he told reporters Thursday. 

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has also threatened to step up attacks, warning that “if Israel wants to escalate, we are ready for it".

Violence also again rocked the occupied West Bank, where a Palestinian man was killed during a confrontation with Israeli soldiers near Nablus, the Palestinian health ministry said Thursday. 

The crisis flared last Friday when weeks of tensions boiled over and Israeli riot police clashed with crowds of Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

Nightly disturbances have since gripped Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, leaving more than 900 Palestinians injured, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.

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first published:May 13, 2021, 15:54 IST