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Rocket barrage fired at Israel after Hamas commanders killed

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Firefighters inspect destroyed buildings after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City
Firefighters inspect destroyed buildings after it was hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City   -   Copyright  Heidi Levine/AP
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Rocket fire and air strikes continued between Hamas militants and the Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday night as Israeli families cowered in air raid shelters and mob violence racked the streets.

Israeli airstrikes brought down two high-rise buildings in the Gaza Strip, including a block housing important Hamas officers.

Markets and homes were reduced to rubble in the Palestinian Territories hours before Eid, the religious holiday marking the end of Ramadan.

Hamas meanwhile has fired more than 1,000 rockets into Israeli territory since Monday night, a small number of which have landed, targeting the densely-populated Tel Aviv in a fresh barrage on Wednesday night, setting off air-raid sirens and explosions throughout the city.

The worst surge of Israeli-Palestinian violence in years erupted on Monday after weeks of tensions over evictions of Palestinians from strategic parts of East Jerusalem.

The officially-recorded death toll in Gaza rose on Wednesday to 69, including 16 children and five women, according to the Health Ministry, with at least 365 people wounded. In Israel at least seven people have been killed by rocket fire, including three women and two children.

Tensions also boiled over in the streets of cities across Israel on Wednesday night, with video footage surfacing of Jewish mobs attacking Arab citizens and businesses, while Jewish properties and synagogues were also set on fire.

Earlier on Wednesday, on being told that Egypt might be poised to attempt to broker a ceasefire, Israeli defence minister Benny Gantz said: “Israel is not preparing for a ceasefire. There is currently no end date for the operation. Only when we achieve complete quiet can we talk about calm.”

In just three days, the latest round of fighting is coming to resemble the countries' devastating 50-day war in 2014. More than 1,000 rockets have been fired by Hamas since Monday night, with 850 of them intercepted by Israel's missile shield or falling on Israel, and 200 falling on the Palestinian side.

Senior Hamas figures killed

Hamas has confirmed its Gaza City commander was killed in an Israeli airstrike on Wednesday. Bassem Issa was the highest-ranking Hamas military figure to be killed by Israel since 2014.

The group's armed wing said Issa had been killed “along with a few of his fellow brothers of leaders and holy fighters” during the fighting that has been going on for two days in Gaza.

Just after daybreak on Wednesday, Israel hit Gaza City with dozens of airstrikes targeting police and security installations. The country's military said it had killed at least 16 members of Hamas, while it said an Israeli soldier had been killed by an anti-tank missile.

Yonatan Sindel/AP
An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in the Gaza Strip at the Israel-Gaza border on Wednesday, May 12Yonatan Sindel/AP

After confirming Issa's killing, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued a warning, asserting that "this is just the beginning". "We'll hit them like they've never dreamed possible," he said.

Fear and mob violence erupt in streets of Israel

Parts of Israel's mixed cities appeared on the brink of anarchy on Wednesday night as Arab and Israeli citizens attacked one another, forcing Netanyahu to call for calm: “It doesn’t matter to me that your blood is boiling," he said. "You can’t take the law in your hands,”

Videos were posted on social media showing various parties looting and burning Arab and Israeli shops and restaurants in Acre, Haifa and Tiberias. Police arrested more than 400 people overnight.

In Bat Yam, a suburb of Tel Aviv, a mob of far-right Israelis dragged a man they thought was an Arab from his car and beat him until he lay on the ground motionless and bloodied.

Heidi Levine/AP
A Jewish man argues with Israeli riot police amid clashes between Arabs, police and Jews in the mixed town of LodHeidi Levine/AP

Public security minister Amir Ohana then called for the release of a Jewish man arrested in connection with a fatal shooting of an Arab man in the city of Lod, after a synagogue and other Jewish property were torched.

Meanwhile, civilians on both sides of the barrage rushed for safety on Wednesday night as airstrikes bore down on Gaza and Tel Aviv. The streets of Gaza City resembled a ghost town as people huddled indoors on the final night of Islam's holy month of Ramadan.

“There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide,” said Zeyad Khattab, a 44-year-old pharmacist who fled with a dozen other relatives to a family home in central Gaza. “That terror is impossible to describe.”

The Israeli army also shared footage showing a rocket slamming into apartment towers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva in the early hours of Thursday, sparking a large fire. It said the strike left people wounded and caused “significant damage.”

“We're coping, sitting at home, hoping it will be OK,” said Motti Haim, a father-of-two in the central town of Beer Yaakov. “It's not simple running to the shelter. It's not easy with the kids.”

'We're deteriorating inside Israel'

Amnon Be'eri Sulitzeanu is the co-CEO of Abraham Initiatives, an organisation promoting shared society and Jewish-Arab partnership in Israel. As rocket attacks by Hamas spread to parts of northern Israel as well as the southern and central regions, he too spent the night in a shelter.

"People aren't used to this and find themselves in a lot of anxiety trying to protect themselves, their families and children," he told Euronews. "This is by no means comparable to Gaza - in Gaza the situation is much worse - but Israel, generally speaking, is not used to these types of attacks."

He added that mob violence in mixed Israeli cities like Lod, where Arabs and Israelis have lived side by side for decades, was particularly distressing to see. "It's terrifying to see hostilities break out in a split second between neighbours. I feel we're deteriorating inside Israel."

Calls for de-escalation grow

The international community has called on both sides to defuse the situation immediately. On Wednesday United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres said he was "deeply saddened to learn of increasingly large numbers of casualties, including children, from Israeli airstrikes in Gaza, and of Israeli fatalities from rockets launched from Gaza."

He called on Israeli security forces to exercise "maximum restraint" and "calibrate their use of force", and an admonishment to Hamas: "Indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars towards Israeli population centres is unacceptable."

Nasser Nasser/AP
Palestinian mourners cry over the body of Mohammad Daraghmeh at their family house during his funeral in the West Bank village of Lubban, near NablusNasser Nasser/AP

Washington said it would be sending an envoy to try to bring calm to the situation. Earlier Wednesday the U.S. president, Joe Biden, spoke to Netanyahu and voiced hope the recent upsurge in violence would soon end. “My expectation and hope is this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself,” he said.

But Netanyahu’s office said he had told the U.S. president Israel would “continue acting to strike at the military capabilities of Hamas and the other terrorist groups active in the Gaza Strip”.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has also called on "Israel and the Palestinians to step back from the brink and for both sides to show restraint" in a tweet on Wednesday.

So far calls for calm do not appear to have been heeded by either Hamas or the Israel Defense Forces. This is the fiercest fighting between the two sides since the 2014 war, during which 2,100 Palestinians and dozens of Israelis were killed.

Child victims of the violence

Mazen Naim, a Gaza-based communications officer for Save the Children, told Euronews on Wednesday morning that the situation was "getting worse by the minute”.

He said Israel had been targeting civilian buildings, adding: “For children to live through this is unacceptable. My children, I have never seen them this scared before in my life. They are always shivering, afraid, and whenever they hear explosions they cry and run away."

He added: "This is what I’m feeling with my children and this is what all families in Gaza are feeling. Many families went to bed hugging their children and woke up this morning, at 6 am, to a huge bombardment of the Gaza strip."

Clashes in Jerusalem

The large-scale conflict first reached new heights on Monday after Hamas fired six rockets at Jerusalem, 100 kilometres away. It set off air raid sirens throughout Jerusalem, and explosions rang out in what is thought to be the first time the city has been targeted since the 2014 war.

The barrage came after weeks of evictions of Palestinians from strategic areas of East Jerusalem, which culminated in Israeli police storming the al-Aqsa Mosque compound, home to the third holiest site of Islam and the holiest site for Judaism.

During Monday’s unrest, Israeli police fired tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets in a face-off with stone-throwing Palestinians inside the compound. At least a dozen tear gas canisters and stun grenades landed inside the mosque itself.

More than 700 Palestinians were hurt in the clashes in Jerusalem and across the West Bank in 24 hours, with nearly 500 treated in hospital.

Netanyahu said: “Terrorist organisations in Gaza have crossed a red line and attacked us with missiles in the outskirts of Jerusalem... whoever attacks us will pay a heavy price.”

Khalil Hamra/AP
Rockets fired from Gaza towards Israel on MondayKhalil Hamra/AP

In a statement issued early on Tuesday, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the rocket attacks would continue until Israel stopped “all scenes of terrorism and aggression in Jerusalem and al-Aqsa mosque.”

Violence in Lod described as 'civil war'

An early flashpoint was the East Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians have been held under threat of eviction by Jewish settlers. Since then, violence between civilians has spilled over into other mixed cities in Israel.

In Lod, thousands of mourners joined a funeral for an Arab man, Mousa Hasoona, killed by a Jewish gunman the previous night. Three people have been arrested in connection with the death.

At the funeral the crowd fought with police and set a synagogue and around 30 vehicles, including a police car, on fire, Israeli media reported. Paramedics said a 56-year-old man was seriously hurt after his car was pelted with stones.

An 'apartheid state'?

Ahmad Shihab-Eldin, a journalist of Palestinian descent based in Kuwait, told Euronews that in his view, both the deadly airstrikes on Gaza neighbourhoods and the violence erupting in Israeli cities were the result of a culture of impunity fostered by the U.S.

"This colonial violence," he said, "has been because both Israel and the settlers know they can act with impunity... The settlers and these terrifying lynch mobs are emboldened by an apartheid state that allows them to carry weapons and assault Palestinians in their neighbourhoods."

Heidi levine/AP
Jacob Simona stands by his burning car during clashes with Israeli Arabs and police in the Israeli mixed city of LodHeidi levine/AP

Lod's Mayor, Yair Revivo, described the situation in the mixed Jewish-Arab city as 'civil war'. The government has ordered the deployment of paramilitary border guards from the West Bank to Lod.

Israeli president Reuvin Rivlin said on Wednesday the sight of the 'pogrom' in Lod was "unforgivable." In a video statement, he added: "The silence of the Arab leadership about these disturbances is shameful."

In neighboring Ramle, ultra-nationalist Jewish demonstrators were filmed attacking cars belonging to Arabs, while in the northern port town of Acre, protesters torched a Jewish-owned restaurant and hotel. Police arrested dozens of others at Arab-led protests in other towns.