By Fares Akram and Joseph Krauss GAZA CITY :
HAMAS sent a heavy barrage of rockets deep into Israel in a matter of minutes on Thursday and Israel pounded Gaza with more airstrikes. The relentless escalation of hostilities came even as Egyptian negotiators held in-person talks with the two sides, intensifying efforts at mediation. Previous fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers, including a devastating 2014 war, was largely confined to the impoverished and blockaded Palestinian territory and Israeli communities on the frontier.
But this round seems to be rippling farther and wider than at any time since the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising, and is tearing apart the country at its seams. While some rocket attacks have reached the Tel Aviv area, Arab and Jewish mobs have rampaged through the streets, savagely beating people and torching cars. Flights have been cancelled or diverted away from the country’s main airport. Weary Palestinians, meanwhile, somberly marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramzan on Thursday as militants fired one barrage of rockets after another and Israel carried out waves of bone-rattling airstrikes. Since the rockets began on Monday, Israel has toppled three high-rise buildings that it said housed Hamas facilities after warning civilians to evacuate.
Gaza’s Health Ministry, said the death toll has climbed to 83 Palestinians, including 17 children and seven women, with more than 480 people wounded. Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of seven militants, while Hamas has acknowledged 13 of its militants killed, including a senior commander. Israel says the number of militants dead is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel. Among them were a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a 6-year-old child hit in a rocket attack. A visit by Egyptian security officials was a significant development in international mediation efforts, which have been key to ending past rounds of fighting. The officials met first with Hamas leaders in Gaza before holding talks with the Israelis in Tel Aviv, two Egyptian Intelligence officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to talk to the press. Still, both Israel and Hamas seemed determined to press ahead. Even as word came of the mediators’ presence, Gaza militants fired a volley of some 100 rockets nearly simultaneously, raising air raid sirens around southern and central Israel. There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties — but the barrage appeared aimed at demonstrating that Hamas’ arsenal was still full even after three nights of airstrikes and the killing Wednesday of several Hamas leaders involved in the rocket programme.
“The decision to bomb Tel Aviv, Dimona and Jerusalem is easier for us than drinking water,” a spokesman for Hamas’ military wing declared in a video message. Dimona is the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor. “Our conflict will reach you whenever you turn any aggression against our people,” he said. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited batteries of the Iron Dome missile defence system, which the military says has intercepted 90 per cent of the 1,200 rockets that have reached Israel from Gaza so far. “It will take more time, but with great firmness we will achieve our goal — to restore peace to the State of Israel,” he said.