GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Weary Palestinians somberly marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Thursday, as Hamas and Israel traded more rockets and airstrikes and Jewish-Arab violence raged across Israel.
The violence has reached deeper into Israel than at any time since the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Arab and Jewish mobs have rampaged through the streets, savagely beating people and torching cars, and flights have been canceled or diverted away from the country's main airport.
The escalating fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers has echoed — and perhaps even exceeded — their devastating 2014 war. That conflict and two previous ones were largely confined to the impoverished and blockaded Palestinian territory and Israeli communities on the frontier. But this round — which, like the intifada, began in Jerusalem — seems to be rippling far and wide, tearing apart the country at its seams.
Meanwhile, in Gaza residents are bracing for more devastation as militants fire one barrage of rockets after another and Israel carries out waves of bone-rattling airstrikes, sending plumes of smoke rising into the air. Since the rockets began Monday, Israel has toppled three high-rise buildings that it said housed Hamas facilities after warning civilians to evacuate.
In the first sign of possible progress in efforts for a cease-fire, an Egyptian security delegation was in Tel Aviv on Thursday for talks with Israeli officials after meeting Hamas officials in Gaza, two Egyptian intelligence officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk the press. Even as word came of their presence, a volley of some 100 rockets from Gaza was fired toward southern and central Israel. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.
Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll has climbed to 83 Palestinians, including 17 children and seven women, with more than 480 people wounded. Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of seven militants, while Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, acknowledged that a top commander and several other members were killed. Israel says the number of militants killed is much higher than Hamas has acknowledged.
Seven people have been killed in Israel. Among them were a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a 6-year-old child hit in a rocket attack.
The fighting comes as Muslims mark Eid al-Fitr, the end of a month of daily fasting that is usually a festive time when families shop for new clothes and gather for large feasts.
Instead, Hamas urged the faithful to mark communal Eid prayers inside their homes or the nearest mosques instead of out in the open, as is traditional.
Hassan Abu Shaaban tried to lighten the mood by passing out candy to passers-by after prayers, but acknowledged “there is no atmosphere for Eid at all.”
“It is all airstrikes, destruction and devastation,” he said. “May God help everyone.”
In Gaza’s southern town of Khan Younis, dozens of mourners marched through the streets carrying the bodies of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old killed when an Israeli airstrike hit near their home Wednesday.
The owner of a five-story building in Gaza City, meanwhile, said he got a call from the Israeli military on Thursday asking him to evacuate it before an airstrike brought it down.
“The building is residential, what is in to hit?” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.
The Israeli military later said the building housed intelligence offices used by Hamas.
Gaza militants continued to bombard Israel with nonstop rocket fire into Thursday. The attacks brought life to a standstill in southern communities near Gaza, but also reached as far north as the Tel Aviv area, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) away, for a second straight day.
Israel has diverted some incoming flights from Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, to the Ramon airfield in the country’s far south, the Transportation Ministry said. Several flights have also been canceled.
The Israeli military says more than 1,600 rockets have been fired since Monday, with 400 falling short and landing inside Gaza. Israel’s missile defenses have intercepted 90% of the rockets. Israeli airstrikes have struck around 600 targets inside Gaza, the military said.
The Israeli army shared footage showing a rocket impact between apartment towers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva early Thursday, apparently sparking a large fire. It said the strike wounded people and caused significant damage.
“We’re coping, sitting at home, hoping it will be OK,” said Motti Haim, a resident of the central town of Beer Yaakov and father of two children. “It’s not simple running to the shelter. It’s not easy with the kids.”
Despite cease-fire efforts, both sides were vowing to push ahead.
Israeli television’s Channel 12 reported late Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet authorized a widening of the offensive. “It will take more time, but with great firmness ... we will achieve our goal — to restore peace to the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said during a visit to batteries of the anti-missile defenses.
Not long after, air raid sirens rang out in Tel Aviv and around southern and central Israel as the warning system showed dozens of incoming rockets from Gaza.
A spokesman for Hamas’ military wing declared in a video speech that the “decision to bomb Tel Aviv, Dimona and Jerusalem is easier for us than drinking water.” Dimona is the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor. “Our conflict will reach you whenever you turn any aggression against our people.”
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the “indiscriminate launching of rockets” from civilian areas in Gaza toward Israeli population centers, but he also urged Israel to show “maximum restraint.” U.S. President Joe Biden called Netanyahu to support Israel’s right to defend itself, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he was sending a senior diplomat to the region to try to calm tensions.
The current eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem, where heavy-handed Israeli police tactics during Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers ignited protests and clashes with police. A focal point of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police was Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound that is revered by Jews and Muslims.
Jerusalem is at the heart of the conflict between the bitter enemies: Israel regards the entire city as its capital, while the Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state.
Hamas, claiming to be defending the city, launched a barrage of rockets at the city late Monday, in a dramatic escalation. Hamas banners could be seen outside Al-Aqsa on Thursday as thousands gathered there for Eid prayers.
The recent fighting has also set off violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Israel, in scenes unseen in more than two decades. Netanyahu warned that he was prepared to use an “iron fist if necessary” to calm the violence.
But ugly confrontations erupted across the country late Wednesday. Jewish and Arab mobs battled in the central city of Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, despite a state of emergency and nighttime curfew. In nearby Bat Yam, Jewish nationalists attacked an Arab motorist, dragged him from his car and beat him until he was motionless.
Israeli police said two people were shot and wounded in Lod and an Israeli Jew was stabbed. An Arab citizen was stabbed and seriously wounded in Jerusalem's central Mahane Yehuda market, where many Arabs work in restaurants and as food vendors. Dozens of people were arrested in towns across Israel where clashes and rioting broke out.
In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military said it intervened in a Palestinian shooting attack that wounded two people. The Palestinian Health Ministry said the suspected gunman was killed. No details were immediately available.
Still unclear is how the fighting in Gaza will affect Netanyahu’s political future. He failed to form a government coalition after inconclusive parliamentary elections in March, and now his political rivals have three weeks to try to form one.
They have courted a small Islamist Arab party, but the fighting could hamper those efforts.
Krauss reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Samy Magdy in Cairo, Isabel DeBre in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and Karin Laub in the West Bank contributed.
Fares Akram And Joseph Krauss, The Associated Press