By Associated Press
JERUSALEM — Israel on Tuesday stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, flattening a high-rise building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at least three militants in their hideouts as Palestinian rockets rained down almost nonstop on parts of Israel.
It was the heaviest fighting between the two bitter enemies since 2014, and it showed no signs of slowing.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to expand the offensive, while Gaza militants unleashed a fierce late-night barrage of rockets that set off air-raid sirens and explosions throughout the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
Just after daybreak Wednesday, Israel unleashed dozens of airstrikes in the course of a few minutes, targeting police and security installations, witnesses said. A wall of dark gray smoke rose over Gaza City. Iyad al-Bozum, a spokesman for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, said airstrikes destroyed the central police headquarters in Gaza City, a compound with several buildings.
Five Israelis, including three women and a child, were killed by rocket fire Tuesday and early Wednesday, and dozens of people wounded. The death toll in Gaza rose to 35 Palestinians, including 10 children, according to the Health Ministry. Over 200 people were wounded.
In the West Bank, meanwhile, a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli troops that entered al-Fawar refugee camp in southern Hebron, the ministry said.
In another sign of widening unrest, demonstrations erupted in Arab communities across Israel, where protesters set dozens of vehicles on fire in confrontations with police.
The fighting between Israel and Hamas was the most intense since a 50-day war in the summer of 2014. In just over 24 hours, the current round of violence, sparked by religious tensions in the contested city of Jerusalem, increasingly resembled that devastating war.
The booms of Israeli airstrikes and hisses of outgoing rocket fire could be heard in Gaza throughout the day, and large plumes of smoke from targeted buildings rose into the air. Israel resumed a policy of airstrikes aimed at killing wanted militants and began to take down entire buildings — a tactic that drew heavy international criticism in 2014.
In Israel, the nonstop barrages of rocket fire left long streaks of white smoke in their wake, while the explosions of anti-rocket interceptors boomed overhead. Air-raid sirens wailed throughout the day, sending panicked residents scurrying for cover.
In a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said that Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant groups “have paid, and I tell you here, will pay a heavy price for their aggression.”
He claimed that Israel had killed dozens of militants and inflicted heavy damage on hundreds of targets.
“This campaign will take time,” he said. “With determination, unity and strength, we will restore security to the citizens of Israel.”
He stood alongside Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival, in a show of unity. “There are lots of targets lined up. This is only the beginning,” Gantz said. The military said it was activating some 5,000 reservists and sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border.
The current violence has coincided with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a time of heightened religious sentiments.
Critics say heavy-handed Israeli police measures in and around Jerusalem’s Old City helped stoke nightly unrest. Another flashpoint has been the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are under threat of eviction by Jewish settlers.
Confrontations erupted last weekend at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Over four days, Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs at the forces. At times, police fired stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.