Israel’s military said it unleashed on Thursday night an “unprecedented” assault on the Gaza Strip with artillery and air strikes in response to a new barrage of rocket fire from the Hamas-run enclave.
The latest development came amid international efforts to broker a truce between Israel and Hamas on the fourth day of fighting in the most severe flare-up of conflicts between the two sides since 2014. At least 103 Palestinians and eight Israelis have been killed, according to Palestinian and Israeli official figures. The international community, deeply concerned with the alarming tensions and violence in the region, called for maximum restraint and tangible de-escalation efforts.
The four-day burst of violence has pushed Israel into uncharted territory, having to deal with intense fighting with Hamas as well as severe Jewish-Arab violence within the Jewish state. The sharp escalation began at 6 p.m. local time (1500 GMT) on Monday after Hamas set an ultimatum for Israel to withdraw its forces from the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, where hundreds of Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli police earlier that day.
At least 1,750 rockets have been fired by Gaza Palestinian militants toward Israel since Monday, according to the Israeli military. About 300 of the rockets failed to reach Israel, and the Israeli anti-rocket Iron Dome system intercepted most of the other rockets.
In Gaza, Israel continued to pound the besieged Palestinian enclave with more airstrikes and shellings. An 87-year-old Israeli woman died in a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip on Thursday, bringing to eight the death toll of Israelis killed in the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israel also called up some 9,000 reservists and massed forces near the border fence separating Gaza and Israel, in reported preparations for a possible ground offensive.
“I’ve said we will exact a heavy price from Hamas and we are doing it,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement. He did not elaborate on the specific goal of the Thursday assault.
“We will continue to do so,” Netanyahu warned. “The last word hasn’t been said yet and this operation will continue as long as needed.”
The armed conflict and civil unrest have prompted countries to issue travel advisories Israel’s airport authority said Thursday that it is closing the country’s main international airport for landings amid rising tensions between Israel and the Gaza Strip. The Ben Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv is closed for incoming flights. Departures will be redirected to the Ramon Airport, a smaller airport outside the southern resort city of Eilat, the Israel Airports Authority said in a statement.
“The decision to reroute the flights aimed to allow greater freedom of action in protecting the skies of Israel,” said the statement.
Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines have temporarily suspended planned flights to Israel from Frankfurt, Munich and Vienna. The flights are expected to be renewed by Saturday. The United States on Thursday issued a travel advisory, warning Americans to “reconsider travel to Israel” amid escalating violence between the Jewish state and Palestinians. “The Department of State raised the Travel Advisory Level for Israel and the West Bank and Gaza to a Level 3,” out of a maximum of four, the advisory said.
The disturbing situation in the region has drawn massive international concerns and prompted an earnest call for immediate de-escalation.
United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed deep concern last week over the continuing violence in the region, urging Israel to “exercise maximum restraint.” “Israeli authorities must exercise maximum restraint and respect the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. All leaders have a responsibility to act against extremists and to speak out against all acts of violence and incitement,” Guterres said in a statement.
The UN chief also urged Israel to “cease demolitions and evictions,” in line with its obligations under international humanitarian law and international human rights law.
In response to the recent surge in Israel-Palestinian tensions, the UN Security Council (UNSC) will hold a virtual open meeting on Sunday to discuss the escalation of tensions between Israel and Palestine, diplomats said Thursday. The meeting, scheduled for Friday and proposed by Norway, Tunisia and China, was originally blocked by the United States, on grounds of “ongoing diplomatic efforts.”
Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the UN, tweeted that the meeting will be held at 10 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Sunday. “China is deeply concerned about escalation of tensions in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. #UNSC should act now and send a strong message. Regret a Friday meeting was blocked by one member,” said the tweet.