Israeli soldiers fire a 155mm self-propelled howitzer towards the Gaza Strip from their position along the border with the Palestinian enclave, on May 17, 2021. (AFP Photo)
GAZA CITY: The Israeli military unleashed a wave of heavy airstrikes on the Gaza Strip early Monday, saying it destroyed 15 kilometers (9 miles) of militant tunnels and the homes of nine Hamas commanders, as international diplomats worked to end the weeklong war that has killed hundreds of people.
The latest attacks killed a top Gaza leader of the Islamic Jihad militant group whom the Israeli military blamed for some of the thousands of rocket attacks launched at Israel in recent days.
Israel has said it intends to press on for now with its attacks against Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, and the United States signaled it would not pressure the two sides for a cease-fire.
At least 200 Palestinians have been killed in the strikes, including 59 children and 35 women, with 1,300 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Eight people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier, have been killed in ongoing rocket attacks launched from civilian areas in Gaza toward civilian areas in Israel.
Violence has also erupted between Jews and Arabs inside Israel, leaving scores of people injured. On Monday, an Israeli man attacked last week by a group of Arab citizens in the central city of Lod died of his wounds, according to police.
The overnight airstrikes in Gaza on Monday hollowed out one floor of a multistory concrete building. A woman picked through clothing, rubble and splintered furniture in a room that had been destroyed. One strike demolished the wall of one room, leaving untouched an open cabinet filled with bedding inside. Children walked over debris in the road.
A car in the street that witnesses said was hit by an airstrike was bent and torn, its roof ripped back and what was left of the driver’s side door smeared with blood. A beachside cafe the car had just left was splintered and on fire. Rescue workers tried to put out the blaze with a small fire extinguisher. There was no immediate word on casualties.
Gaza’s mayor, Yahya Sarraj, told Al-Jazeera TV that the strikes had caused extensive damage to roads and other infrastructure. “If the aggression continues, we expect conditions to become worse,” he said.
The U.N. has warned that the territory’s sole power station is at risk of running out of fuel, and Sarraj said Gaza was also low on spare parts. Gaza already experiences daily power outages for between eight and 12 hours, and tap water is undrinkable. Mohammed Thabet, a spokesman for the territory’s electricity distribution company, said it has fuel to supply Gaza with electricity for two or three days.
The war broke out May 10, when Hamas long-range rockets at Jerusalem after weeks of clashes in the holy city between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police. The protests were focused on the heavy-handed policing of a flashpoint sacred site during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
More protests were expected across the region Tuesday in response to a call by Palestinian citizens of Israel for a general strike. The protest has the support of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party.
Since the fighting began, the Israeli military has launched hundreds of airstrikes it says are targeting Hamas’ militant infrastructure. Palestinian militants in Gaza have fired more than 3,200 rockets into Israel. Israeli military officials said Hamas had stockpiled about 15,000 rockets before the war started. Rocket attacks continued Monday, with one hitting a building in the city of Ashdod that caused injuries, the Israeli police said.
US diplomat Hady Amr met with a delegation from the Palestinian Authority on Monday, a day after meeting senior Israeli leaders. But the Biden administration has declined so far to publicly criticize Israel’s part in the fighting or send a top-level envoy to the region.
Speaking to reporters during a trip to Denmark, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would support any initiative to stop the fighting, but signaled the country did not intend to put pressure on the two sides to accept a cease-fire.
“Ultimately it is up to the parties to make clear that they want to pursue a cease-fire,” he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who spoke Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, emphasized Germany’s solidarity with Israel, condemned the continued rocket attacks from Gaza and expressed hope for a swift end to the fighting, according to her office.
Hamas’ top leader, Ismail Haniyeh, who is based abroad, said the group has been contacted by the United Nations, Russia, Egypt and Qatar as part of cease-fire efforts but “will not accept a solution that is not up to the sacrifices of the Palestinian people.”
In an interview with the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, he blamed the war on Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and boasted that the rockets were “paralyzing the usurping entity (Israel).”
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said his government is working to “urgently” end the violence, in his first comments since the war broke out. Egypt, which borders Gaza and Israel, has played a central role in the cease-fires brokered after previous rounds of fighting.
The Israeli military, meanwhile, said it struck 35 “terror targets” Monday as well as the tunnels, which it says are part of an elaborate system it refers to as the “Metro,” used by fighters to take cover from airstrikes.
The tunnels extend for hundreds of kilometers (miles), with some more than 20 meters (yards) deep, according to an Israeli Air Force official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, in keeping with regulations. The official said Israel was not trying to destroy all the tunnels, just chokepoints and major junctions.
The military also said it struck nine houses in different parts of northern Gaza that belonged to “high-ranking commanders” in Hamas. Islamic Jihad said a strike killed Hasam Abu Harbid, the militant group’s commander for the northern Gaza Strip.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is at least 130 and has released the names of and photos of more than two dozen militant commanders it says were “eliminated.”
Israel’s airstrikes have leveled a number of Gaza City’s tallest buildings, which Israel alleges contained Hamas military infrastructure. Among them was the building housing The Associated Press Gaza office and those of other media outlets. The Israeli military alerted staff and residents before the strike, and all were able to evacuate safely.
Sally Buzbee, the AP’s executive editor, has called for an independent investigation into the airstrike.
Netanyahu alleged that Hamas military intelligence was operating inside the building and said Sunday any evidence would be shared through intelligence channels. Blinken said he hasn’t yet seen any evidence supporting Israel’s claim.