By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Rami Ayyub
GAZA/TEL AVIV (Reuters) -Israel bombed what it said were underground tunnels used by Hamas and Palestinian militants fired rocket barrages at Israeli cities as fighting spilled into a second week on Monday and international calls for a ceasefire mounted.
After a night of heavy Israeli air strikes on areas across the Islamist Hamas-run enclave, Israel’s military said Gaza militants had fired about 60 rockets towards Israeli cities overnight, down from 120 and 200 the two previous nights.
A Palestinian sponge factory in northern Gaza was hit in a morning air strike and firefighters battled to quell the blaze, which sent plumes of smoke into the air. One Palestinian was killed in an air strike later in the morning, medics said.
After rockets were fired from Gaza at the Israeli cities of Beersheba and Ashkelon, Israeli jets bombed what the military said were 15 km (nine miles) of underground tunnels used by Hamas. It also struck nine residences belonging to high-ranking Hamas commanders, it said.
With the sounds of Israeli bombardment continuing throughout the morning, Gaza residents rushed to bakeries and drugstores to stock up on bread and other essentials.
“My children couldn’t sleep all night even after the wave of intensive bombing stopped,” said Umm Naeem, 50, a mother of five, as she shopped for bread in Gaza City. “What is happening to us is too much, but Jerusalem deserves all the sacrifices.”
Gaza health officials put the death toll since the hostilities flared at 198, including 58 children and 34 women. Ten people have been killed in Israel, including two children, Israeli authorities say.
Hamas began its rocket assault last Monday after weeks of tensions over a court case to evict several Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near the city’s al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
World concern had already deepened after an Israeli air strike in Gaza that destroyed several homes on Sunday and which Palestinian health officials said killed 42 people, including 10 children, and persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.
“All parties need to deescalate tensions – the violence must end immediately”, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote on Twitter, injecting more urgency into Washington’s calls for calm after speaking with Egypt’s foreign minister.
At a U.N. Security Council meeting on Sunday, the United States said it had made clear to Israel, the Palestinians and others that it was ready to offer support “should the parties seek a ceasefire”.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s campaign in Gaza was continuing at “full force”, and that deterrence had to be achieved to prevent future conflict with Hamas.
“We are acting now, for as long as necessary, to restore calm and quiet to you, Israel’s citizens. It will take time,” Netanyahu said in a televised address after his security Cabinet met on Sunday.
U.S. President Joe Biden said his administration was working with all parties towards achieving a sustained calm.
In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council that the United Nations was “actively engaging all sides toward an immediate ceasefire” and urged them “to allow mediation efforts to intensify and succeed.” U.N. envoys have helped to mediate past truces between Israel and Hamas.
Washington, a strong ally of Israel, has been isolated at the United Nations over its objection to a public statement by the Security Council on the violence because it worries it could harm behind-the-scenes diplomacy.
Jordan’s King Abdullah said his kingdom was involved in intensive diplomacy to halt the bloodshed, but gave no details.
The Israeli military said Hamas, a group regarded by Israel, the United States and the European Union as a terrorist movement, and other armed factions have fired about 3,150 rockets from Gaza over the past week.
Israel’s missile defence system intercepted around 90% of the rockets, and around 460 landed in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas said its attacks were in retaliation for Israel’s “ongoing aggression against civilians”, including the air strike in Gaza City on Sunday that destroyed a number of homes.
The Israeli military said civilian casualties were unintentional and that its jets attacked a tunnel system used by militants, which collapsed, bringing the homes down. Hamas called it “pre-meditated killing”.
On U.S. network CBS’ “Face the Nation” programme, Netanyahu defended another Israeli air strike a day earlier that destroyed a 12-storey building where the Associated Press and the Al Jazeera TV network had offices.
He said the structure also housed the militant group’s intelligence office, making it a legitimate target.
Israel had given advance warning to occupants to leave. The Associated Press has condemned the strike and called on Israel to present evidence that Hamas was in the building.
(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Michelle Nichols in New York, Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman, Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Stephen Coates and Timothy Heritage)