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Palestinian militants fire more rockets, Israeli airstrikes hit Gaza despite cease-fire efforts

Palestinian militants have fired rockets toward Jerusalem, further escalating the most violent confrontation in months between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip

May 12, 2023 - 20:28 By AP
Smoke rises from an explosion caused by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza Strip, Friday. (AP)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Palestinian militants fired rockets toward Jerusalem on Friday, further escalating the most violent confrontation in months between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip despite efforts to broker a cease-fire.

The burst of rocket fire from Gaza sent warning sirens wailing as far north as the contested capital of Jerusalem — about 48 miles (77 kilometers) from the Gaza border — breaking a 12-hour lull that had raised hopes that regional powers could soon broker a cease-fire.

There were no immediate reports of casualties on either side Friday. The fighting, which started on Tuesday, between Israel and Islamic Jihad — the second-largest militant group in Gaza after the territory’s Hamas rulers — have killed 31 Palestinians in the strip, including women and children, and a 70-year-old man in central Israel.

A rocket slammed into an open field in the Israeli south Jerusalem settlement of Bat Ayin, said Josh Hasten, a spokesperson for the area. Dull thuds could be heard inside the city, home to major sites holy to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Videos showed Israelis jumping out of their cars and crouching beneath highway rails as the sirens sounded. Residents in nearby settlements reported hearing explosions and seeing black smoke rising from the hills after an apparent missile interception.

“The bombing of Jerusalem sends a message,” Islamic Jihad said in a statement. “What is happening in Jerusalem is not separate from Gaza.”

In response, the Israeli military said its warplanes struck four Islamic Jihad military posts and a mortar shell launcher across the Gaza Strip.

The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was conducting a security assessment. The Israeli military urged those within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of the Gaza border to remain close to bomb shelters and limit public gatherings until Saturday evening.

Sirens near Jerusalem took some residents back to the spring of 2021, when Hamas fired rockets toward the city, which helped set off a bloody 11-day Gaza war. At that time, the militant group cited a provocative far-right march through the Palestinian neighborhoods of Jerusalem as one of the reasons for its rocket barrage, along with the displacement of Palestinians from the city's east.

Israeli police said they will allow the same Jewish ultranationalist parade — meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem — to take place on Thursday.

Since Tuesday, Israeli strikes have killed five senior Islamic Jihad figures and hit at least 215 targets in Gaza, including rocket and mortar launch sites and militants preparing to use them. Islamic Jihad has retaliated with nearly 900 rockets fired toward densely populated parts of Israel.

Israeli bombs and shells have destroyed 47 housing units, and damaged 19 so badly they were uninhabitable, leaving 165 Palestinians homeless, Gaza’s housing ministry reported. In addition, nearly 300 homes sustained some damage.

Palestinians on Friday surveyed the wreckage wrought by the fighting.

“The dream that we built for our children, for our sons, has ended,” said Belal Bashir, a Palestinian living in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, whose family home was reduced to a heap of rubble in an airstrike late Thursday. He, his young daughters and two-week-old son would have been killed in the thundering explosion if they hadn’t ran outside when they heard shouting, he said.

“We were shocked that our house was targeted,” he added as he pulled his children’s dolls and blankets from a gaping bomb crater.

At least 31 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip have been killed in the fighting, including seven children and four women, according to the UN humanitarian office. At least three of the children were killed by misfired Palestinian rockets, according to the Israeli military and the Palestinian Center for Rights. Over 90 Palestinians have been wounded, the Palestinian Health Ministry reported.

The civilians deaths have drawn condemnation from the Arab world and concern from the United States and Europe. In its past four wars against Hamas, Israel has repeatedly faced accusations of war crimes due to the high civilian death tolls and its use of heavy weapons against the crowded enclave. Israel, in turn, contends that Palestinian militant groups use civilians as human shields by fighting in their midst.

Hamas, the de facto civilian government with an army of some 30,000 in Gaza, has sought to maintain its truce with Israel while attempting to keep abysmal living conditions in the blockaded enclave from spiraling since a devastating 11-day war in 2021 that killed over 260 Palestinians. The group, which seized control of Gaza in 2007, has sat out this round of fighting — as it did a similar burst of violence last summer . In a sign of restraint, Israel has limited its airstrikes to Islamic Jihad targets.

Both sides had seemed on the brink of a cease-fire earlier this week. Hamas officials, on Friday, told local media that Egypt was ramping up its diplomatic efforts to stop the fighting. But the Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported that Israeli officials had pulled out of the talks in Egypt after Islamic Jihad unleashed rockets toward Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on the reports.

Meanwhile Islamic Jihad figures have sent mixed signals about the negotiations. Senior official Ihsan Attaya complained early Friday that the mediators “have been unable to provide us with any guarantees.” A sticking point has been Islamic Jihad’s demands that Israel cease its policy of targeted killings, Attaya said.

In Cairo, Islamic Jihad political bureau member Mohamad al-Hindi was trying to hash out the details of a possible truce. He told Palestinian media that he hoped both sides “would reach a cease-fire agreement and honor it today.” But the continuing exchange of fire hours later seemed to undermine his optimism.

This week's battles began when Israel launched, on Tuesday, simultaneous airstrikes that killed three Islamic Jihad commanders along with some of their wives and children as they slept in their homes. Israel said it was retaliating for a barrage of rocket fire launched last week by Islamic Jihad following the death of one of its West Bank members, Khader Adnan, from an 87-day hunger strike while in Israeli custody.

The airstrikes and rockets have shifted the focus of long-running conflict back to Gaza after months of surging violence in the occupied West Bank under Israel's most right-wing government in history.

Israel has been carrying out near-nightly arrest raids in the West Bank that have killed 109 Palestinians so far this year — the highest such death toll in two decades. At least half of the dead are affiliated with militant groups, according to a tally by The Associated Press. At least 20 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis during that time. (AP)