Israel’s conflict with Palestinians widens

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Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians intensified on several fronts as it grappled with worsening communal riots in its cities and mass protests across the occupied West Bank while extending its bombardment of Gaza into a sixth day.

Despite the worsening crisis and diplomatic efforts by the US and regional governments, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed on Friday that Israel’s assault against Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that controls Gaza, was “not over yet”.

As the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza rose to 136, including 55 women and children, the US and regional governments struggled to broker a ceasefire. Ten Israelis have been killed, including a child and a soldier.

Israel has rejected a second offer for a truce from Hamas, a western diplomat told the FT. Hady Amr, the US State Department’s top official for Israel and Palestinian affairs was in Tel Aviv overnight, while the UN sought a two-hour halt to fighting on Sunday to ease the hostilities.

For a sixth day Israeli jets pounded the hemmed-in Gaza Strip, home to 2m Palestinians, and a woman and her four children were killed overnight when their home in a refugee camp was hit, local health officials said.

An Israeli strike destroyed a multistorey building in Gaza that was housing media groups, including the Associated Press, the US news agency, and Al Jazeera, the Qatari satellite television network. The AP said the building’s owner received a call from the Israeli military warning it would be hit and the news outlets evacuated. 

An Arabic language spokesman for Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 12 news that “Hamas bears full blame for the deaths of civilians in Gaza”. The spokesman said militants had placed military targets within densely populated neighbourhoods.

Despite the Israeli bombardment, which has been ramped up to include artillery and tank fire, Hamas has fired about 2,500 rockets deep into Israel.

Rockets launched towards Israel
Hamas has fired about 1,800 rockets deep into Israel © Getty Images

On Friday night, Hamas fired 200 rockets towards Ashdod and Beersheva.

In the West Bank, Israeli security forces killed 11 Palestinians after angry protests erupted across the occupied territory on Friday, local health officials said.

Unrest in the West Bank could worsen significantly, an aide to the Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told the FT, after nearly 80 demonstrations on Friday. Some turned violent with Palestinians throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.

A mass Palestinian demonstration was planned for later Saturday, to mark the 73rd anniversary of the creation of Israel, which Arabs call the Nakba, or disaster.

The West Bank, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 war, is home to about 650,000 Jewish settlers, including at least 200,000 in East Jerusalem. The territory, which is the seat of Fatah, Hamas’s rival Palestinian faction, had been relatively quiet until yesterday.

As well as its campaign against Hamas, Israel is struggling to contain the worst domestic communal violence in years as groups of Jews and minority Arab Israeli men have attacked each other’s communities and destroyed property in mixed Israeli towns.

Israeli police have arrested nearly 900 people as they attempt to stem riots in cities with mixed Jewish and Arab populations, with the communal strife exposing a deep rift within the Jewish state.

About 15,000 police officers battled to impose a night curfew in cities such as Lod, Haifa and Jaffa, where an Arab home was firebombed.

The Arab-Israeli conflict has for more than a decade been dominated by fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian factions in the occupied territories. But the communal violence has sparked new tension.

Israeli Arabs account for about one-fifth of the Jewish state’s population, carry Israeli passports and vote in the country’s elections. But they say they suffer from institutional and social discrimination and their sympathy for the Palestinian cause has made them a target for rightwing Israeli politicians.

This week, Israel redeployed several thousand police from the West Bank to Israeli cities and towns as it stepped up efforts to stem the domestic unrest.

The crisis erupted after weeks of tension in and around Jerusalem, which escalated last week after police used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades against Palestinian protesters in the compound of al-Aqsa mosque.

More than 600 Palestinians were wounded and images of the police using force against the protesters at Islam’s third holiest site — long a flashpoint in the Arab-Israeli conflict — inflamed Arab anger.

The al-Aqsa mosque lies in a compound — known to Muslims as the Haram ash-Sharif, or Noble Sanctuary, and to Jews as Temple Mount — that is sacred to both religions.

As tension escalated, Hamas stepped into the fray on Monday, firing rockets into Israel and demanding that Jewish settlers in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem stop harassing Arab residents who were awaiting eviction orders from Israeli courts.

Israel responded by launching its biggest military campaign against Hamas since its 2014 war with the Islamist group.

The impoverished territory is now down to about five hours of electricity a day and will probably run out of fuel by Sunday, according to one Israeli security official.

In an attempt to choke off Hamas’s access to resources, Israel has, since 2007, imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip.

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