More Than 30 Dead in Gaza and Israel as Fighting Quickly Escalates
Hamas fires rockets at Israeli cities. Israel hits Gaza with airstrikes. Civilians suffer the most casualties, but leaders on each side may reap political benefits.
Published May 11, 2021Updated May 14, 2021
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
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Fighting between Israelis and Palestinians intensified on Tuesday to the highest levels seen in seven years, as militants fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli military responded with airstrikes in Gaza.Mahmud Hams/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
ASHKELON, Israel — The worst fighting between Israelis and Palestinians in seven years intensified on Tuesday night, as Israeli airstrikes began targeting Hamas offices in Gaza City and militants in Gaza fired rockets at the metropolis of Tel Aviv, the southern city of Ashkelon and Israel’s main airport.
In Gaza, at least 35 Palestinians, including 10 children, had been killed by Tuesday night, and 203 others were wounded, according to health officials. In Israel, five people were killed in strikes on Tel Aviv, Ashkelon and Lod, and at least 100 were wounded, according to medical officials.
Away from the military conflict, a wave of civil unrest spread across Arab neighborhoods as Palestinian citizens of Israel expressed fury at the killings in Gaza and longstanding complaints of discrimination inside Israel itself.
While the surge in strikes, the worst since 2014, brought fear to millions in Gaza and Israel, they nevertheless bolstered an unlikely pair: Hamas, the Islamist militant group that runs the Gaza Strip, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel.
For Hamas, the conflict has allowed it to revitalize its claims to the leadership of Palestinian resistance. It framed its rockets as a direct response to a pair of Israeli police raids on the Aqsa Mosque compound, a religious site in East Jerusalem sacred to both Muslims and Jews. In the process, the group presented itself as a protector of Palestinian protesters and worshipers in the city.
Israeli forces and
of strikes at multiple
Gaza and Israel.
Police raided Al Aqsa
Mosque on Monday to disperse crowds and protesters.
For Mr. Netanyahu, the distraction of the war, and the divisions it creates between the disparate opposition parties currently negotiating a coalition to topple him from power, have given him half a chance of remaining in office, just days after it seemed like he might finally be on the way out.
“It is the story of every previous war between Israel and Hamas,” said Ghassan Khatib, a politics expert at Birzeit University in the occupied West Bank. Both governments “come out of it victorious, and the public of Gaza comes out of it as losers.”
Both sides seized on the charged symbolism of the holy city. The Israeli military code-named its operation Guardians of the Walls, a reference to the ancient ramparts of the Old City of Jerusalem. The militants had their own code name: Sword of Jerusalem.
For the victims of the violence, the first 36 hours of the renewed conflict brought little but terror and loss. The Palestinian militants and Israeli military are unevenly matched — the former armed with rockets, the latter with fighter jets and a sophisticated antimissile defense system, the Iron Dome, partly financed by the United States.
Israel’s sophisticated antimissile defense system, the Iron Dome, is partly financed by the United States.
Israel’s sophisticated antimissile defense system, the Iron Dome, is partly financed by the United States. Amir Cohen/Reuters
Israeli airstrikes aim for strategic targets in densely populated Gaza, killing civilians even as Israel insists it takes measures to avoid them. Hamas’s rockets, on the other hand, aim for civilian population centers but often miss the mark.
Osama Soboh, a 31-year-old civil servant in Gaza City, lost his mother, Amira, and brother, Abdelrahman, when an Israeli strike on their apartment block — aimed at a militant leader — also took out his family.
“This is my mom,” Mr. Soboh said by phone on Tuesday afternoon. “It’s a very hard thing to say farewell to the most precious person you have on earth.”
Mr. Soboh questioned why Israel had targeted a civilian building. “It’s not a military barracks, it’s not posing any danger to Israel,” he said. “This was an old woman with a child with cerebral palsy.”
Thirteen miles to the north, in a sleepy suburb of Ashkelon, in Israel, a grandmother trod across the shards of glass and detritus left by a Hamas rocket that had sliced through her apartment block.
“What have I done wrong?” asked Maria Nagiv, 61, a former soldier who was born in Ukraine. “I didn’t do anything and they still send us bombs.”
Ms. Nagiv understood little about the events at the Aqsa compound that had preceded the attack.
“What happened in Jerusalem?” she asked as shards crunched beneath her feet. “I haven’t been following anything about that.”
Taking cover in Ashdod, Israel, on Tuesday as sirens warned of incoming rockets from Gaza.Abir Sultan/EPA, via Shutterstock
Later that day, an Ashkelon City Council member, Amichai Siboni, ran through the city’s streets, searching frantically for a bomb shelter, while bomb sirens sounded overhead.
“There is a siren right now,” Mr. Siboni said as he narrated his experience to an Israeli broadcaster. “I am looking for a safe room in a supermarket. I see around me elderly shoppers getting down to the floor. They are anxious and holding on to each other on the ground.”
In Gaza and Israel, the rockets and airstrikes reached an intensity considered rare for this early stage in a conflict here.
In Gaza, Israeli pilots quickly moved on from solely military targets, turning Tuesday to an apartment block said to house the home of a leading militant, and a tower block housing offices of several Hamas officials.
An Israeli military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, said early Tuesday that 15 militants had been killed in strikes by jets and unmanned drones.
As multiple salvos of rockets streaked out of Gaza in rapid succession, one hit a school in Ashkelon. The school was empty because the Israeli authorities had ordered all schools within 25 miles of Gaza closed in anticipation of rockets.
A giant fire raged on the outskirts of the city, where an oil facility was hit.
An oil facility in Ashkelon was hit by rockets fired from Gaza.Mohammed Abed/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Unrest also broke out among Palestinian citizens of Israel, who were angered by the strikes on Gaza, the raid on the Aqsa compound and the looming expulsion of several Palestinian families from their homes in Jerusalem. Protesters waving Palestinian flags gathered in several Arab towns across Israel, some of them burning cars and Jewish properties.
Palestinians rampaged in the mixed city of Lod, where a state of emergency was declared early Wednesday. Protesters set fire to a synagogue and dozens of cars. One Palestinian man was fatally shot.
A municipality office that was burned during a night of violence between Israeli Arab protesters and the Israeli police in the town of Lod.Heidi Levine/Associated Press
A popular, Jewish-owned fish restaurant went up in flames in Acre, and television images showed a Jewish mob stoning Arab vehicles in Ramla.
In a speech recorded in Qatar and aired on a Hamas-affiliated television channel, a senior Hamas political leader, Ismail Haniya, struck a triumphant tone.
“We have managed to create an equation linking the Jerusalem and Gaza fronts,” he said. “They are inseparable. Jerusalem and Gaza are one.”
For Hamas, analysts said the new round of fighting gives the group the chance to reclaim some of the luster it had as a resistance movement that had faded after years of governing the Gaza Strip. Since coming to power in 2007, Hamas has lost popularity because of what many Gazans see as its authoritarian approach and poor governance.
Evacuating a building in Gaza City on Tuesday. The cross-border military conflict escalated rapidly.Mahmud Hams/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But its self-presentation as the defender of Jerusalem has allowed the group to piggyback on widespread anger at Israeli police behavior at the Aqsa compound. And it has also allowed the group to ride the coattails of a grass-roots campaign to prevent the eviction of the Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem.
The families’ plight resonated widely because it embodied the broader effort to remove Palestinians from parts of East Jerusalem and of the past displacements of Arabs in the occupied territories and within Israel.
“The events in Jerusalem became very popular among Palestinians,” Mr. Khatib said. “They wanted to move in support of that, in order to get credit.”
The rocket fire also allows Hamas to outmaneuver President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, which exerts partial autonomy in parts of the West Bank. Mr. Abbas recently canceled what would have been the first Palestinian elections in 15 years, denying Hamas the chance to legitimize itself through electoral success.
Now Hamas wants to prove its relevance through other means, said Mkhaimar Abusada, a political scientist at Al Aqsa University in Gaza.
“Definitely what is happening is an indirect message to the Palestinian Authority and to Abbas,” said Mr. Abusada. “If he is not willing to reorganize the Palestinian internal house, that’s another reason why Hamas is escalating.”
Palestinian demonstrators during anti-Israel protests near the Jewish settlement of Beit El near Ramallah.Abbas Momani/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The war also gives Mr. Netanyahu political breathing space.
Mr. Netanyahu’s opponents have three weeks to cobble together an unlikely coalition — and their success depends on far-right Jewish politicians and Arab Islamists putting aside fundamental differences to join forces in government.
But a war with Gaza makes that less likely, since it becomes far harder for Arab politicians, who oppose confrontations with Gaza, to find common cause with right-wingers who firmly back military action.
Mansour Abbas, an Islamist politician whose party holds the balance of parliamentary power, canceled coalition talks on Monday, as military escalation appeared inevitable. And Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who has pledged to oust Mr. Netanyahu, is now distracted by the war effort.
“It won’t work,” said Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser. “Abbas can’t justify to his public supporting a government that is fighting in Gaza.”
Mr. Netanyahu, also sounding a note of defiance, suggested the hostilities might not end any time soon.
“Hamas and Islamic Jihad have paid, and will pay, a very heavy price for their aggression,” he declared in a late-night address. “This campaign will take time.”
But among civilians left grieving by the conflict, these political questions meant little.
Carrying the body of an 11-year-old, Hussain Hamad, during his funeral in Beit Hanoun, Gaza, on Tuesday. He was killed in an explosion during the conflict.Khalil Hamra/Associated Press
In Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza, the al-Masri family buried two young boys who were killed on Monday evening.
Ibrahim, 11, and Marwan, 7, had been playing outside their home when a missile struck, according to their uncle, Bashir al-Masri, 25.
For Mr. al-Masri, the attack showed that Israel had no concern for civilian life.
“They target buildings with children, they target ambulances, they target schools,” he said by telephone. “And all the world, beginning with America, says that people in Gaza are terrorists. But we are not terrorists. We just want to live in peace.”
On Tuesday night, it was impossible to predict when that would come. The rapid escalation to high-value targets could mean that each side was ramping up for a major conflict.
It could also mean that each is trying to make a powerful final statement before the fighting ends.
But Colonel Conricus said Tuesday that the military’s air campaign was still in its “early stages.”
Reporting was contributed by Iyad Abuhweila from Gaza City, Myra Noveck and Irit Pazner Garshowitz from Jerusalem, and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.