Israel and Hamas exchanged heavy fire on Tuesday, with 22 Palestinians killed in Gaza, in a dramatic escalation between the bitter rivals sparked by violence at Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al Aqsa Mosque compound.
Nine children were among those killed in the blockaded Gaza Strip that is controlled by Hamas and 106 people there were wounded, local health authorities said.
More than 200 rockets have been fired by Palestinian fighters towards Israel since Monday, with over 90 per cent intercepted by its Iron Dome missile defence system, army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said. At least six Israelis have been injured.
Israel has carried out 130 strikes carried out by fighter jets and attack helicopters on military targets in the enclave, killing 15 commanders from Hamas, and of the group Islamic Jihad, Conricus told reporters.
More rockets were launched from the coastal enclave on Tuesday, as Hamas’ Qassam Brigades armed wing vowed it would turn the southern Israeli community of Ashkelon into “a hell”.
Conricus said Israel had no confirmation its strikes had impacted Gaza civilians, or whether the casualties there were caused by Palestinian rockets misfiring.
Tensions in Jerusalem have flared into the city’s worst conflicts since 2017 since Israeli riot police attacked large crowds of Palestinian worshippers on the last Friday of Ramazan.
Nightly violence since then at the Al Aqsa compound in annexed east Jerusalem has left hundreds of Palestinians wounded, drawing international calls for de-escalation and sharp rebukes from across the Muslim world.
Diplomatic sources told AFP that Egypt and Qatar, who have mediated past Israeli-Hamas conflicts, were attempting to calm tensions.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken strongly condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas, saying they “need to stop immediately”.
“All sides need to de-escalate, reduce tensions, take practical steps to calm things down,” he said.
‘You escalate, we escalate’
Hamas on Monday warned Israel to withdraw all its forces from the mosque compound and the east Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah, where looming evictions of Palestinian families have fuelled angry protests.
Sirens wailed across Jerusalem just after the 1500 GMT deadline set by Hamas as people in the city, including lawmakers in the Knesset legislature, fled to bunkers for the first time since the 2014 Gaza conflict.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas had “crossed a red line” by targeting Jerusalem.
The Qassam Brigades said the rocket attacks were in response to Israeli actions in Sheikh Jarrah and around the Al Aqsa mosque.
“This is a message that the enemy must understand well: If you respond we will respond, and if you escalate we will escalate,” it said.
Several properties in Israel have been damaged by rockets, including an apartment in the southern city of Ashkelon, and a house in Beit Nekofa, about 10 kilometres west of central Jerusalem.
An Israeli Arab died from gunshot wounds in violence with Israeli Jews in the central city of Lod, police said on Monday, without providing details.
Rocks and rubber bullets
Fears of further chaos in the Old City had temporarily eased on Monday when Israeli organisers of a march to celebrate the Jewish state’s 1967 capture of east Jerusalem cancelled the event.
But then came the Hamas warning, followed by the rockets, which also forced the evacuation of the Western Wall and other sites.
On Monday evening, as during the previous nights since Friday, Israeli officers in riot gear fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas at Palestinians who hurled rocks in return.
There were signs of calm in Jerusalem’s Old City on Tuesday, an AFP reporter said, but the risk of escalation remained high.
The Palestinian Red Crescent said at least 520 Palestinians have been wounded since Monday, including more than 200 who were hospitalised, five of them in critical condition.
The Israeli police reported 32 injuries in their ranks.
Palestinian man Siraj, 24, sat in a wheelchair with his two legs bandaged at east Jerusalem’s crowded Makassed Hospital after suffering a spleen injury from being hit by a rubber bullet.
“They shot everyone, young and old people,” he said.
Makassed director Adnan Farhoud said most of Monday’s injuries were to the head, chest and limbs, adding that when “you mean to harm someone, you shoot at the head”.