Nowhere to run for besieged residents

Gaza City: The Israeli army has vowed to stop Hamas firing rockets into Israeli territory and said it was preparing its troops “for all scenarios” as it began readying along the Gaza border and the fierce hostilities between the two sides dragged on with no end in sight.

“We are ready to sustain operations as long as needed and as hard as needed,” international military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus told a briefing last night.

As Hamas and other militant groups fired hundreds of rockets into Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, killing at least seven Israelis including a six-year-old and a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, worries grew that the latest violence could spiral into a protracted conflict.

Israeli police patrol during clashes between Arabs, police and Jews, in the mixed town of Lod, central Israel.Credit:AP

The Hamas barrages sent hundreds of thousands of Israelis running to bomb shelters across the country and hit numerous civilian targets, including a bus and a school in the city of Askhelon that was empty because authorities had ordered all schools closed.

“All of Israel is under attack. It’s a very scary situation to be in,” said Margo Aronovic, a 26-year-old student, in Tel Aviv.

As the most severe outbreak of violence between Israel and the Gaza Strip since a 2014 war, Umm Majed al-Rayyes from Gaza City and other Palestinians in the line of fire faced an all-too-familiar question: Where should we go?

“This whole territory is a tiny place. It’s a prison. Everywhere you go, you’re a target,” Rayyes said by phone from a neighbour’s house, where she sought refuge with her teenage sons and daughters and a few bags of clothes after an Israeli air strike that she said came without warning.

Smoke is seen from a collapsed building after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City on Wednesday, Credit:AP

In Gaza, a crowded coastal enclave of 2 million people, there are no air raid sirens or safe houses. Temporary United Nations shelters have come under attack in previous years of conflict. In the past two days, Israeli air strikes brought down three huge towers housing important Hamas offices and some businesses after the Israeli military fired warning shots, allowing occupants to flee.

Sirens blared in Tel Aviv overnight and the sound of rockets being shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome system filled the sky, sending thousands of Israelis to shelters.

By dawn, Israel had renewed its air strikes on the Palestinian coastal enclave, destroying a six-storey residential building in the middle of Gaza City.

Mourners attend the funeral of Leah Yom Tov, 63, who was killed when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit her house in Rishon Lezion, Israel.Credit:AP

Israel vowed to keep pummelling the Islamist faction in Gaza despite a prediction by US President Joe Biden that hostilities might end soon.

“My expectation and hope is this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself,” Biden said after speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden did not explain the reasons behind his optimism.

Netanyahu’s office said he told the US President that Israel would “continue acting to strike at the military capabilities of Hamas and the other terrorist groups active in the Gaza Strip”.

Israeli fighter jets also targeted without warning multiple residential buildings, located in teeming neighbourhoods where Israel alleged militants lived. In all, more than 67 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since Monday, including 17 children. Among the dead were both militants and civilians, including at least two women and children who died during the apartment building strikes. Conricus said some 400 of 1600 rockets fired by Gaza factions had fallen short, killing some Palestinians.

Mourners carry the coffin of Israeli Arab Khalil Awaad and his daughter Nadine,16, during their funeral in the village of Dahmash near the mixed Israeli city of Lod.Credit:AP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken phoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and said Washington “was exerting efforts with all relevant parties to reach calm,” the official Palestinian news agency WAFA said. Abbas is a Hamas rival whose authority is limited to the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Hamas runs the Gaza Strip.

The fighting has touched off strife within Israel, where some in the Arab minority mounted violent pro-Palestinian protests. In one mixed town, Acre, an Arab mob beat a man presumed to be Jewish with sticks and rocks in an attack captured on video. In Bat Yam, Tel Aviv, dozens of Jewish extremists beat a man presumed Arab as he lay motionless on the ground.

Netanyahu has condemned the “anarchy” of Jewish-Arab violence in cities across the country after a day of tumultuous unrest.

Netanyahu said “nothing justifies” Jews attacking Arabs or Arabs attacking Jews. He vowed to restore order after two days of violence unchecked by police.

At a Gaza City hospital, distraught families told of pulling bloodied relatives from piles of rubble. One woman said her four-year-old grandson and pregnant daughter-in-law were killed when an Israeli air raid hit their two-storey building on Wednesday.

“They bombed them without any warning. The house had nothing but the kids,” said Umm Mohammad al-Telbani crying in the hospital morgue.

Pro-Israeli and Palestinian protests erupted in cities from Berlin and Iran to Los Angeles, while in Australia a woman was charged on Wednesday after burning an Israeli flag in Sydney’s Lakemba. Prime Minister Scott Morrison said it was very important the tensions in the Middle East did not spill onto the streets of Australia.

“We’re all very concerned about what’s happening there. And we’ve been urging restraint from all parties involved there to not take any unilateral action […] But those things should not be played out here in Australia. We’re a peaceful country. We believe in a two-state solution. That’s the government’s policy at least. And we want to ensure that people live in this country with tolerance and respect.”

The Israeli government long has accused Hamas of using civilians as human shields against retaliatory strikes; militants often launch rockets from civilian areas and set up command centres inside residential buildings.

The people killed by the indiscriminate fire at Israeli population centres included three women and two children, spreading fear on both sides of the border.

Recalling the horror of past wars, Gaza residents say they feel nowhere is safe. They also cannot leave the narrow territory, one of the world’s most densely populated places. It has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized control in 2007. Along its borders, Gaza is encircled by sensor-studded fences, concrete walls, galvanised steel barriers and the Mediterranean Sea, where Israel restricts boats from Gaza to some 16 nautical miles offshore.

“There is nowhere to run, there is nowhere to hide,” said Zeyad Khattab, a 44-year-old pharmacist in Gaza City, who fled to the family home where he grew up in the central Gaza district of Deir al-Balah with a dozen relatives when bombs pounded his residential high-rise. “That terror is impossible to describe.

This week’s mayhem stemmed from clashes at the most sensitive place in Jerusalem, the revered plateau site of al-Aqsa Mosque and the iconic golden Dome of the Rock. Analysts long have considered flaring tensions at the compound, sacred to both Muslims and Jews, to be the most dangerous accelerant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

AP, Reuters, staff reporters

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