Israel has killed several senior Hamas commanders in targeted air strikes in the Gaza Strip as the Jewish state vowed to step up its campaign against the Palestinian militant group in spite of global warnings that clashes could trigger a full-blown war.
“We’ll hit them like they’ve never dreamt possible,” Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement, adding that the operations in Gaza were “just the beginning”.
In the worst violence since 2014, the Hamas militant group that runs the Gaza Strip launched 1,000 rockets overnight that closed an airport, lit up the sky over Tel Aviv and sent much of the Jewish state’s population into bomb shelters. Israeli air strikes toppled high-rise buildings in Gaza City.
Joe Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he had spoken to Netanyahu. “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory,” the US president said.
UK prime minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday urged leaders to “step back from the brink” as the furious volley of attacks left 49 people dead in Gaza and seven in Israel, including a soldier killed on Wednesday. Hundreds were injured in the Gaza Strip and dozens in Israel, according to medics on both sides.
Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, condemned the violence and said the US was sending Hady Amr, the top US official for Israel and Palestinian affairs, to meet leaders from both sides.
For now, the hostilities appear to have achieved their political ends for both Hamas and Netanyahu, analysts said. Hamas has displayed its ability to strike deep into Israeli territory, as far south as Beersheva and as far inland as Ben Gurion International Airport.
“Hamas wanted to show Israel that the Palestinian resistance is a lot more sophisticated — and in the last 48 hours, it fired hundreds of [rockets] at Israel at the same time,” said Mkhaimar Abusada, a professor of politics at Al-Azhar University in Gaza. “Millions of Israelis were in shelters, Ben Gurion airport was closed, and look at the state of uprising against Israel in the Arab Israelis.”
And Netanyahu, who was on the cusp of losing his premiership, has reasserted himself as “Mr Security”, his nickname in Israeli media. Plans to build a coalition to oust him, which required an Islamist party to back a rightwing prime minister, have now formally been suspended.
The Israeli military’s aggressive new chief of staff, Aviv Kochavi, last year outlined a “Victory Doctrine” — destroying the largest amount of enemy capabilities as rapidly as possible, with the lowest number of casualties.
“Between operations, the Israeli army works very hard to build up a very large bank of military targets that it can attack. The idea is to hit Hamas to such an extent that the next time before they use such force, they will think twice,” said Amir Avivi, a retired brigadier-general who has worked with a previous army chief. “We want to recreate this deterrence that has been lost over time.”
Kochavi was given the green light on Tuesday evening by Netanyahu to step up the intensity of attacks. Overnight, the Israeli Air Force targeted senior Hamas commanders, carried out a sortie of 80 aircraft that simultaneously targeted 150 rocket launch sites and in two instances toppled high-rise buildings that the Israel Defense Forces said were being used by Hamas.
Ghassan Abu El-Said, who lived next to one, said the buildings’ security guard had received repeated phone calls from the Israeli military to evacuate everybody. He described half-dressed families, someone in a wheelchair and elderly people rushing down the street to get to safety.
Two hours later, the building was destroyed — prompting a furious barrage from Hamas into Israel. “This is collective punishment against civilians — so many are now homeless,” he said. “The Israeli occupation is meant to terrify us, and to cause destruction.”
This bout of violence between Hamas and Israel was preceded by police using rubber bullets and tear gas against Palestinians protesting at Israeli restrictions around al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, a flashpoint between rightwing Jews and devout Muslims who both cherish the site it is built on.
Hundreds of Muslim protesters had been injured over the weekend by Israeli police, who cleared the mosque with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. The Islamist Hamas, which styles itself as the protector of the shrine, stepped in, firing rockets that nearly reached Jerusalem.
“Hamas did this to save al-Aqsa from the Zionists — no price is too high to save our holy mosque,” said Zayed, a 19-year-old at a hospital in Gaza, tending to his friend’s injuries received from a broken window near an Israeli air strike. “What else can we do when we see the Jews violating our Palestinian brothers.”
Rightwing Jewish mobs roamed the streets of Arab-dominated and mixed-population cities, carrying bats and wooden planks, witnesses said. Online videos showed them screaming “Death to Arabs” while waving Israeli flags.
The beating of an Arab man in Bat Yam, which borders the Arab neighbourhood of Jaffa, was captured on live television, and an Arab member of the Knesset told the Times of Israel that the violence could soon spread. “I’m terrified that things will deteriorate further,” said Issawi Frej, of the leftwing Meretz party. “Our young, reckless youth will want to defend themselves.”
Israeli president Reuven Rivlin called in to a news channel to beg for calm. “We are dealing with a civil war between us — do all you can to stop this terrible thing that is happening,” he said.
Israel faces growing international pressure to show restraint, and its western allies condemned Hamas for its indiscriminate rocket fire targeting civilians.
Egypt, which acted as a mediator in previous conflicts, was sending two teams to help broker a ceasefire, according to an Israeli official. Russia’s foreign ministry said on Wednesday that a senior Hamas official had promised to stop attacks if other countries pressured Israel to end its security operation near al-Aqsa mosque and “unlawful measures” against Arabs in East Jerusalem.
Additional reporting by Max Seddon in Moscow and Katrina Manson in Washington