TEL\AVIV—Palestinian militants and the Israeli army exchanged a barrage of deadly fire in the early hours of Wednesday as intense fighting continued overnight, with UN envoy for Middle East Peace Tor Wennesland warning the two sides were heading “towards a full-scale war”.
Israeli police reported two people had been killed after Hamas and Islamic Jihad said they had launched more than 300 rockets into Israel in retaliation for attacks on buildings and civilians.
In response, the Israel Defense Forces said they had launched their largest strike across the Strip since the 2014 Gaza conflict, including targeting the homes of senior Hamas figures.
The heaviest fire in years between the foes has been triggered by violence in Jerusalem, and has killed at least 35 Palestinians in the blockaded Gaza Strip and five people in Israel, as well as wounding hundreds more.
In the crowded, Israeli-blockaded enclave of Gaza that Hamas controls, 12 children and one woman were among those killed since Monday night.
A further 230 people were reported wounded from the ongoing Israeli air strikes, many rescued from the smouldering ruins of buildings.
Earlier, Defence Minister Benny Gantz warned “this is just the beginning” of Israel’s strikes.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh vowed in turn that “if Israel wants to escalate, we are ready for it”.
In Israel, sirens sounded as Hamas rockets rained down, and some of those unable to make it to underground shelters took cover under bridges.
“It was scary,” said Haim Roy Ben Shlomo, 38, resident of Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv, adding he had heard “several loud shots, or booms, above our heads”.
A man and a girl were killed Wednesday in the central city of Lod after a car they were in was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, Israeli police said.
Earlier, an Israeli woman was killed as rockets hit Rishon Letzion on the coastal city’s southern edge, and in Ashkelon, which Hamas threatened to turn into “hell”, rockets fired by militants killed two women.
At one stage Hamas claimed to have fired more than 100 rockets in under five minutes to overwhelm air defences.
Israel’s army said more than 600 rockets had been fired since Monday from Gaza towards Israel, mainly by Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group.
Many landed inside Gaza or were taken out by Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system, but at least 100 Israelis were injured.
The rocket fire forced Israel to suspend flights at its main airport of Ben Gurion, near Tel Aviv.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a state of emergency in Lod, which borders the airport, as police said “wide-scale riots erupted by some of the Arab residents”.
Reinforcements were sent to the area after clashes broke out the night after an Israeli Arab was killed in the city.
In the occupied West Bank, a Palestinian was killed in clashes with the Israeli army on Wednesday, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
‘Everything caught fire’
In Gaza, people sifted through debris after an Israeli air strike destroyed a 12-storey building.
Hamas, which controls the Palestinian territory, said the tower block had been a residential building. AFP reporters said it also houses the offices of several Hamas officials.
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group confirmed they had commanders who had died in the Israeli strikes.
Army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said Israel estimated it had killed 20 Islamist militants in Gaza, warning that “our expectation is the fighting will intensify”.
Asked about unconfirmed reports that Hamas was seeking a ceasefire, Conricus said: “I don’t think my commanders are aware, or particularly interested.”
Five members of a single family were killed by an Israeli strike in northern Gaza on Tuesday, including young brothers Ibrahim and Marwan, who were filling sacks of straw when it hit.
“We were laughing and having fun, when suddenly they began to bomb us, everything around us caught fire,” their cousin, also called Ibrahim, told AFP.
“I saw my cousins set alight, and torn into pieces,” said the 14-year-old, breaking down in tears.
“Why did they leave me? I would have wanted to die as a martyr like them.”
Clashes in Jerusalem
Weeks of tensions boiled over when Israeli riot police clashed with crowds of Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque, on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
Nightly clashes since then at the compound, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews, and elsewhere in east Jerusalem have left at least 700 Palestinians injured.
Palestinians clashed again with Israeli officers in riot gear on Tuesday evening, with 245 injured, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
Diplomatic sources told AFP that Egypt and Qatar, who have mediated past Israeli-Hamas conflicts, were attempting to calm tensions.
But Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told an emergency Arab League meeting that although Cairo had “extensively reached out” to Israel and other countries, “we did not get the necessary response”.
The UN Security Council was set to discuss the violence at an emergency meeting on Wednesday.
A previous meeting on Monday ended without a joint statement, with the United States expressing reluctance to adopt a draft statement “at this point”.
On Tuesday the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation reiterated support for Palestinians, condemning “in the strongest terms the repeated attacks by the Israeli occupation authorities against the Palestinian people”.
Large protests were held in solidarity with Palestinians around the world, including in London, as well as in Muslim-majority countries including Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey.