Nineteen Palestinians and four Israelis killed as Israeli forces mass on Gaza border, stoking fears of ground invasion.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered “massive strikes” on the Gaza Strip after a two-day escalation that killed nineteen Palestinians and four Israelis.
Israeli warplanes and gunboats continued to target the Gaza Strip on Sunday as fighters in the besieged enclave fired a barrage of rockets into southern Israel.
A 34-year-old Hamas commander was killed in what the Israeli military described as a targeted strike. An army statement accused Hamad al-Khodori of “transferring large sums of money” from Iran to armed factions in Gaza.
He was the fifth Palestinian reported killed on Sunday. Other Palestinian victims included a pregnant woman and her one-year-old niece, who were both killed in Gaza on Saturday.
In the Israeli city of Ashkelon, a 58-year-old Israeli man was killed after being struck by shrapnel from a rocket attack. Two other Israelis, critically wounded in a separate rocket attacks on a factory on Sunday afternoon, later died.
“This morning I instructed the IDF [the Israeli Army] to continue with massive strikes against terrorists in the Gaza Strip,” Netanyahu, who doubles as Israeli defence minister, said in a statement after consulting with his security cabinet on Sunday.
He said he had also ordered “tanks, artillery and infantry forces” to reinforce troops already deployed near Gaza, a move that raised fears of a ground invasion.
“Hamas is responsible not only for its attacks against Israel, but also for the Islamic Jihad’s attacks, and it is paying a very heavy price for it,” Netanyahu added.
Joint Operation Room of the Palestinian Resistance Factions on Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip
We have decided to respond to the crimes of occupation in an unprecedented way,” the joint operations room for the terrorist groups in Gaza announced on Saturday night, according to Quds news.
The response comes due to “the enemy’s insistence on targeting safe Palestinian [citizens’] homes,” according to the terrorist groups.
Armed factions in Gaza, otherwise known as the Joint Operations Room, which include the military wing of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine, vowed on Saturday to “extend its response” if the Israeli army continued to target the strip.
“Our response will be broader and more painful in the event [Israel’s] extends in aggression, and we will remain the protective shield of our people and our land,” the Joint Operations Room said in a statement.
Sirens and explosions
The sounds of sirens and explosions reverberated on both sides of the frontier, fraying nerves and keeping schools closed.
Israel halted supplies from its main natural gas field. The Tamar field’s offshore production platform is in range of Palestinian rockets. Israel also stopped fuel imports into Gaza through the main Kerem Shalom crossing.
The latest round of violence began two days ago when an Islamic Jihad sniper fired at Israeli troops, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.
Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease blockaded Gaza’s economic hardship.
This time, Israeli strategic affairs analysts said, both Islamic Jihad and Hamas militants appeared to believe they had some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday.
In two weeks Israel is also hosting the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv, the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March. That attack caused no damage. On Sunday sirens sounded in the city of Rehovot, 17 km (10.5 miles) southeast of Tel Aviv.
Netanyahu, who doubles as defence minister, convened his security cabinet, which issued a statement saying it had ordered the military “to continue its strikes and to prepare for the next stages”.
For residents in Gaza, the escalation comes a day before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins in the territory on Monday. It is traditionally a time for prayer, family feasts to break a daylight fast and shopping.
Among the 10 Gazan civilians killed since Friday were a 14-month-old baby and the baby’s aunt, according to the health ministry. Israel’s military said the intelligence information showed they were killed by a misfired Palestinian rocket.
In Gaza, two Palestinian human rights groups described the cause of their deaths as an explosion with an as yet undetermined source.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the firing of rockets into Israel and urged all parties to “exercise maximum restraint”. A UN envoy said it was working with Egypt to try to end the fighting.
Israeli bombings in Gaza destroyed two multi-storey structures. Witnesses said the Israeli military had warned people inside to evacuate the buildings, which it alleged housed Hamas security facilities, before they were hit.
Saeed Al-Nakhala, owner of a clothing store in one of the buildings, said he had had no time to save his merchandise.
“I was together with my son in the shop, there was a big noise and then another and people started to run. We left everything behind and escaped,” said Nakhala.
Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s West Bank-based rival.
Unemployment in Gaza stands at 52 percent, according to the World Bank, and poverty is rampant.
Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop weapons reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the area.