26 Palestinians Killed as Israel Strikes Gaza after Hamas Rocket Barrage
Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas in Gaza exchanged heavy fire Tuesday, killing at least 26 Palestinians and two Israelis, in an escalation sparked by violent unrest at Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Nine children were among those killed in the blockaded Gaza Strip that is controlled by Hamas and 125 people there were wounded, local health authorities said.
Two Israeli women were killed by rockets in the heavily-targeted coastal city of Ashkelon, just north of Gaza, said the emergency service Magen David Adom. The local Barzilai medical center said it was treating 70 injured.
Hamas's armed wing Qassem Brigades had vowed to turn the town "to hell" and rained down an intense volley, claiming to have fired 137 rockets towards Ashkelon and nearby Ashdod within just five minutes.
Loud booms again rocked the town on Tuesday, where a rocket had ripped a gaping hole into the side of an apartment block, an AFP reporter said.
More than 300 rockets have been fired by Palestinian militants towards Israel since Monday, with over 90 percent intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system, army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said earlier.
Israel fighter jets and attack helicopters have carried out more than 130 strikes on military targets in the enclave, said Conricus.
They have killed 15 Hamas commanders, he added, while the group Islamic Jihad confirmed two of its senior figures were also killed.
Conricus said Israel had no confirmation its strikes had impacted Gaza civilians, or whether the casualties there were caused by Palestinian rockets misfiring.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz authorized an army request to mobilize 5,000 reservists if necessary.
- International concern -
Tensions in Jerusalem have flared into the city's worst disturbances since 2017 in the days since Israeli riot police clashed with large crowds of Palestinians on the last Friday of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Nightly unrest since then at the Al-Aqsa compound in annexed east Jerusalem has left more than 700 Palestinians wounded, drawing international calls for de-escalation and sharp rebukes from across the Muslim world.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said "all sides need to de-escalate, reduce tensions, take practical steps to calm things down". He strongly condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas, saying they "need to stop immediately".
Diplomatic sources told AFP that Egypt and Qatar, who have mediated past Israeli-Hamas conflicts, were attempting to calm tensions.
Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit condemned Israel's Gaza strikes as "indiscriminate and irresponsible ... and a miserable display of force at the expense of children's blood".
- 'You escalate, we escalate' -
Hamas had Monday warned Israel to withdraw all its forces from the mosque compound and the east Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah, where looming evictions of Palestinian families have fueled angry protests.
Sirens wailed across Jerusalem just after the 1500 GMT deadline set by Hamas as people in the city, including lawmakers in the Knesset legislature, fled to bunkers for the first time since the 2014 Gaza conflict.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas had "crossed a red line" by targeting Jerusalem and vowed that the Jewish state would "respond with force".
Hamas' Qassam Brigades said "this is a message that the enemy must understand well: if you respond we will respond, and if you escalate we will escalate".
Several properties in Israel have been damaged by rockets, including the apartment in the southern city of Ashkelon, and a house in Beit Nekofa, west of central Jerusalem.
An Israeli Arab died from gunshot wounds in clashes with Israeli Jews in the central city of Lod, police said Monday, without providing details.
- 'Taking off gloves' -
In Monday evening's Jerusalem clashes -- as during the previous nights since Friday -- Palestinians hurled rocks at Israeli officers in riot gear who fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas.
"They shot everyone, young and old people," claimed Palestinian man Siraj, 24, about Israeli security forces in an earlier confrontation in which he suffered a spleen injury from a rubber bullet.
Human rights group Amnesty International accused Israel of using "abusive and wanton force against largely peaceful Palestinian protesters", describing some of the measures as "disproportionate and unlawful".
The Israeli police did not respond to specific allegations, but told AFP: "We will not allow disturbance of order while harming the fabric of life, inciting to harm police forces and violence against police officers and civilians."
Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai told Israeli N12 TV on Monday that in Jerusalem in recent days "we showed too much restraint. We are at the stage of taking off the gloves."