A Hamas militant group fired dozens of Tel Aviv rockets Tuesday night after Israel stepped up the intensity of its air strikes on the Gaza Strip.
The escalation has threatened to turn a two-day round of hostilities into a wider conflict, and unrest will erupt among the Arab population in Israeli cities as well.
The flights were diverted as the skies over central Tel Aviv were illuminated by the defenses of the Israeli Iron Dome, which simultaneously tracked dozens of missiles. One hit an allegedly empty bus in Holon in southern Tel Aviv. At least six people have received medical help, and more victims are expected.
The escalation came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered an expansion of Israel’s air campaign in the Gaza Strip as the Israeli military tried to degrade Hamas ’operational capabilities with dozens of bombings, targeting missile launch pads and military commanders.
“Hamas will receive blows here that it did not expect,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday night. Hamas responded with a vow to attack Tel Aviv, saying it had launched 130 missiles simultaneously in a probable attempt to overpower Israel’s air defenses.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who ordered 5,000 reserve troops back on duty, said earlier that the Israeli air campaign would continue until “its operational objectives are met.”
Authorities in Gaza say 28 Palestinians were killed, including nine children, although it is unclear whether all the deaths were caused by Israeli air strikes. A multi-storey building in Gaza collapsed in an airstrike.
Three Israeli civilians were killed and nearly a dozen were injured, Israeli medics said.
According to the Israeli defense forces, Israel killed at least 20 militants from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. As Israel performed complex maneuvers, it warned that civilian casualties were likely. “Some of [rocket] the fire pits were built into the civilian population and it cannot be ruled out that there will be civilian casualties, ”it said.
After days of tensions inside Jerusalem, a militant group operating Gaza on Monday night fired rockets at the city, the furthest from Israel they have achieved since 2014. Israel immediately responded to dozens of targeted air strikes.
The Hamas operation came after Israeli police cleared the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Monday, a holy site for Muslims and Jews, wounding hundreds of Muslim protesters with tear gas, shock bombs and rubber bullets. Palestinians were angered by restrictions near the mosque and the planned eviction of Arabs to create a place for Jewish settlers.
Egyptian, Qatari and UN officials mediating between Israel and Hamas have been trying to establish peace, an Israeli official said on Tuesday. Israel has rejected Hamas’ first offer of a ceasefire, TV Channel 12 reported.
The Arab League described Israel’s response in Gaza as “indiscriminate and irresponsible” and “a poor demonstration of force to the detriment of children’s blood.”
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said President Joe Biden was receiving news from his national security team and that his primary focus was de-escalation.
She said the United States had condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and other groups, including the attacks on Jerusalem, and that Biden’s support for “Israeli security, its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, is crucial and will never waver.”
“Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people around the world, must be a place of coexistence,” Psaki said.
The UN Security Council will meet in private on Wednesday, diplomats said, to discuss the outbreak of violence.
As the riots spread, riots broke out in several Israeli cities, including Lod, Ramle and Jaffa – each with a large Arab-Israeli population. Netanyahu moved border police battalions from the occupied West Bank to the city of Lod near Tel Aviv after the mayor of the 80,000-strong city said the riots there were “too big for the police”.
Police said a patrol car was set on fire after a large crowd attended the funeral of an Arab allegedly killed by a Jewish resident, and the Haaretz newspaper reported that two synagogues and a Jewish school were burned.
“This is a giant incident – an intifada [uprising] Arab Israelis, ”Loda Mayor Yair Revivo said on television.
There were also conflicts in Hebron on the West Bank. “Yesterday there were wild disturbances here, which we cannot tolerate, due to young hot heads. It is our directive to do everything to maintain law and order, ”Netanyahu said.
Tensions have risen as the eviction lawsuit coincided with an annual Israeli celebration that began on a Sunday called Jerusalem Day, when Israelis celebrate the 1967 conquest of Arab East Jerusalem. The hearing was adjourned.
The violence comes at an uncertain time in Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s position is weakened as coalition talks progress between his rivals, who are close to securing a government that could overthrow the five-time prime minister. His right-wing supporters see evictions in East Jerusalem as an important part of a long-term strategy to replace Arabs with Jews in the Holy City.
Additional reporting by Hebe Saleh of Cairo