Israeli artillery pounded northern Gaza early Friday in an attempt to destroy a vast network of militant tunnels inside the territory, the military said, bringing the front lines closer to dense civilian areas and paving the way for a potential ground invasion.
Israel has massed troops along the border and called up 9,000 reservists following days of fighting with the Islamic militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza. Palestinians militants have fired some 1,800 rockets and the Israeli military has launched more than 600 air strikes, toppling at least three apartment blocks. At least 119 Palestinians have died in the Hamas-run enclave since the conflict began.
Irris Makler, FRANCE 24's correspondent in Jerusalem, described it as "a huge night".
"What that means is: Massive air attacks, and attacks from tanks and canons outside the Gaza strip and into the Gaza strip […] and at every moment there is a rocket attack coming back here."
Makler said the Israeli military has been targeting Hamas both over- and underground. "A lot of Hamas's operations have moved underground because of this amazing fire power that Israel has from the air, and so it says it is now hitting it underground as well, and that is why we're seeing this escalation."
The stepped-up fighting came as communal violence in Israel erupted for a fourth night, with Jewish and Arab mobs clashing in the flashpoint town of Lod. The fighting took place despite a bolstered police presence ordered by the nation's leaders.
Makler said the development is deeply worrying "and the thing that will linger even after this particular round with Hamas".
"Last night, again, we saw a series of clashes – there's an enormous police presence but it didn't make a difference – with buses of people who were coming into the flashpoint towns from other places to take part. They were turned away, but nevertheless, a synagogue was burned in the town of Lod," she said. "People who took a wrong turn found their cars [coming] under fire. It has not just been rocks, and not just crowds, there are actually people shooting at each other with live fire in Israeli cities, and the mayor of Lod said yesterday that he thought Israel was on the brink of civil war, and nothing in the night has made anybody change their minds."
Over the Gaza strip, masses of red flames illuminated the skies during the night, sending families fleeing from their homes. In the northern Gaza Strip, Rafat Tanani, his pregnant wife and four children, were killed after an Israeli warplane reduced the building to rubble, residents said. Sadallah Tanani, a relative, said the family was "wiped out from the population register" without warning. "It was a massacre. My feelings are indescribable," he said.
Not 'feasible' to avoid civilian areas
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said tanks stationed near the border fired 50 rounds. It was part of a large operation that also involved airstrikes and was aimed at destroying tunnels beneath Gaza City used by militants to evade surveillance and airstrikes, which the military refers to as "the Metro".
"As always, the aim is to strike military targets and to minimise collateral damage and civilian casualties," he said. "Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rise or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn't feasible this time."
The strikes came after Egyptian mediators rushed to Israel for cease-fire talks that showed no signs of progress. Saleh Aruri, an exiled senior Hamas leader, told London-based satellite channel Al Araby that his group has turned down a proposal for a three-hour lull. He said Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations were leading the truce efforts.
The fighting broke out late Monday when Hamas fired a long-range rocket at Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests there against the policing of a flashpoint holy site and efforts by Jewish settlers to evict dozens of Palestinian families from their homes.
Since then, Israel has attacked hundreds of targets in Gaza, causing earth-shaking explosions across the densely populated territory. Gaza militants have fired 1,800 rockets into Israel, including more than 400 that fell short or misfired, according to the military.
The rockets have brought life in parts of southern Israel to a standstill, and several barrages have targeted the seaside metropolis of Tel Aviv, some 70 kilometers (45 miles) away from Gaza.
The Gaza Health Ministry says the death toll has risen to 119 killed, including 31 children and 19 women, with 830 wounded. The Hamas and Islamic Jihad militant groups have confirmed 20 deaths in their ranks, though Israel says that number is much higher. Seven people have been killed in Israel, including a 6-year-old boy and a soldier.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue the operation, saying in a video statement that Israel would "extract a very heavy price from Hamas".
In Washington, President Joe Biden said he spoke with Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying "there has not been a significant overreaction".
He said the goal now is to "get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks". He called the effort "a work in progress".
Israel has come under heavy international criticism for civilian casualties during three previous wars in Gaza, a densely populated area that is home to more than 2 million Palestinians. It says Hamas is responsible for endangering civilians by placing military infrastructure in civilian areas and launching rockets from them.
Hamas showed no signs of backing down. It fired its most powerful rocket, the Ayyash, nearly 200 kilometres (120 miles) into southern Israel. The rocket landed in the open desert but briefly disrupted flight traffic at the southern Ramon airport. Hamas has also launched two drones that Israel said it quickly shot down.
Hamas military spokesman Abu Obeida said the group was not afraid of a ground invasion, which would be a chance "to increase our catch" of dead or captive soldiers.
The fighting cast a pall over the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, normally marked by family gatherings and festive meals. Instead, the streets of Gaza were mostly empty.
The current eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem. A focal point of clashes was Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound that is revered by Jews and Muslims. Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which includes sites sacred to Jews, Christians and Muslims, to be the capital of their future state.
(FRANCE 24 with AP)