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Israel, Hamas Prepare for Wider Conflict as Fighting Intensifies

Hamas launches new rocket salvo; Israel orders mobilization of 5,000 reserve troops

Israel continued its airstrikes Tuesday in response to hundreds of rockets fired from Gaza, following days of clashes in Jerusalem. The Palestinian Health Ministry said several children were among those killed. Photo: Mahmoud Khatab/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

By Felicia Schwartz

Updated May 11, 2021 6:01 pm ET

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TEL AVIV—Fighting between Israel and Hamas intensified on Tuesday, with the Palestinian militant group launching hundreds of rockets from Gaza and Israel responding with airstrikes that have now killed more than 25 people, as the two sides prepared for a wider conflict.

The rocket fire reached central Israel and the coastal city of Tel Aviv on Tuesday evening, killing three Israelis. Sirens blared, loud booms could be heard across the city and light streaks from the missiles and Israel’s Iron Dome defense system crossed overhead in the night sky.

Israeli security forces removed a body Tuesday after a house in Ashdod was hit by a rocket.PHOTO: ABIR SULTAN/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

Hamas, which rules Gaza, said it launched 130 missiles at Tel Aviv and its surroundings on Tuesday in response to what it said was Israeli military’s targeting of civilian buildings. Israel’s military said one of its airstrikes had targeted a Hamas commander living in a high rise. The volley of rockets over central Israel prompted Israeli authorities to stop air traffic to and from Ben Gurion Airport for one hour, an airport spokesman said.

The fighting, the biggest escalation since 2019, stems from frustrations old and new, with Palestinian grievances over what they see as years of efforts by Israel to push them out of Jerusalem fanned by a pending court decision on evictions, clashes over access to the Al Aqsa Mosque during Ramadan, a nationalist Israeli holiday aimed at showcasing claims to East Jerusalem and an emboldened Hamas looking to capitalize on Palestinian discontent with their political leaders after elections were canceled.

Several days of clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police in Jerusalem exploded into full-on conflict Monday evening after Hamas launched dozens of rockets that it said were to avenge Israel’s actions in the contested holy city. With both sides refusing to back down and rebuffing international calls for a cease-fire, fears have risen about an outright war.

“Hamas and Islamic Jihad have paid and will pay a dear price,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “This battle will take time, but we will restore security to Israel.”https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

The Biden administration condemned the rocket fire from Gaza and said it supports Israel’s right to defend itself. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi on Tuesday to condemn the rocket fire and urge de-escalation, State Department spokesman Ned Price said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that American officials have candidly raised concerns with Israeli officials in recent weeks about evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, which “work[s] against our common interests in achieving a solution to the conflict.”

The Palestinian Health Ministry said Tuesday that Israeli strikes in response to the barrages that began Monday evening have killed at least 28 people, including 10 children. Israel’s military said it was investigating reports that children were killed and that some casualties might have been caused by rockets fired from Gaza that exploded there before reaching Israel.

One Israeli was killed in the central Israeli coastal city Rishon LeZion and two when a house in Ashkelon was hit, Israeli emergency-response officials said.

Hamas has launched more than 600 rockets toward Israel since Monday evening, including six at Jerusalem in a first since 2014, according to Israel’s military. Mr. Netanyahu described the attack on Jerusalem as a “red line.” Israel’s military said its Iron Dome system intercepted 200 of the Hamas rockets, while 150 of them exploded inside Gaza.

Palestinians evacuated a building in Gaza City on Tuesday.PHOTO: MAHMUD HAMS/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Mourners gathered for a funeral Tuesday for a Palestinian man killed during an Israeli attack on the northern Gaza Strip.PHOTO: FATIMA SHBAIR/GETTY IMAGES

Military officials said Israel has struck scores of Hamas targets, including weapons-manufacturing sites, military facilities and tunnels on the border that Israel says Hamas uses to launch attacks. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, disclosed some details of what he called several complex and large operations targeting the militant group in Gaza.

Col. Conricus said 80 Israeli military aircraft simultaneously bombed 150 rocket-launching sites on Monday evening, a maneuver that he said likely caused some civilian casualties. Israel has also trapped a number of Hamas special-forces operatives in a tunnel between Gaza and Israel that the military said Hamas planned to use to launch an attack, he said. Col. Conricus wouldn’t say how many operatives were there or where the tunnel was exactly.

A damaged house in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, which Hamas has targeted with rockets.PHOTO: JACK GUEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense system intercepted a rocket above Ashkelon on Tuesday.PHOTO: JACK GUEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Israeli officials said the military has also targeted senior officials from Hamas and another militant group, Islamic Jihad, killing 20 Hamas operatives, including an antitank commander, as well as two Islamic Jihad leaders.

Meanwhile, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz ordered the mobilization of 5,000 Israeli reserve troops to expand operations and enhance Israel’s defense efforts, according to a Defense Ministry spokeswoman.

[Israel is “sending a clear message to Hamas,” Col. Conricus said. “A message that will resonate for some time that the type of attack that they conducted against Jerusalem…is totally unacceptable and something that we won’t tolerate.”

Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the militant group seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. The two sides have seen several escalations since spring 2018 that have almost developed into full-blown conflict.

An Israeli soldier inspected a damaged apartment in Ashkelon on Tuesday.PHOTO: JACK GUEZ/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The latest escalation is the biggest since November 2019, when Israel targeted an Islamic Jihad leader. Palestinians and Israeli police have recently clashed in connection with demonstrations that began as a response to a looming Israeli court decision on whether to evict Palestinians in the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah from their homes. Hundreds of Palestinians have been injured in clashes with the Israeli police since last week.

Hamas officials have seized on the hostilities in Jerusalem to press their influence and stature among Palestinians, particularly after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas canceled Palestinian elections in which Hamas was predicted to make significant gains.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said the group would continue its assault “unless the occupation stops all manifestations of aggression and terror in Jerusalem and the blessed Al Aqsa Mosque.”

Monday was especially tense because it was Jerusalem Day, an annual Israeli holiday marking Israel’s capture of East Jerusalem that is always contentious. Mr. Netanyahu moved to postpone the court hearing and reroute Jerusalem Day marchers to avoid Muslim areas of the Old City to try to de-escalate the situation.

MORE ON ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CLASHES

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Hamas issued an ultimatum to Israel to remove its forces from Sheikh Jarrah and Al Aqsa by 6 p.m. local time on Monday, a condition Hamas knew Israel wouldn’t meet, and the barrage of rockets into Jerusalem came as the deadline passed.

On Tuesday, sirens blared around communities in southern Israel as Hamas continued its campaign. Israel’s military imposed limits on public gatherings and closed schools across the country, including in southern Israel, as it anticipated a potentially wide-ranging assault from Hamas in the coming hours and days.https://tpc.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html

Arab Israelis also launched protests in several Israeli cities including Haifa and Ramle against Israel’s actions at the Al Aqsa mosque, leading to clashes with police and dozens of arrests. On Tuesday evening there were large demonstrations in Lod, near Israel’s main international airport. Mr. Netanyahu ordered a battalion of border police to try to contain violent riots in the mixed city.

—Dov Lieber in Tel Aviv and Anas Baba in Gaza City contributed to this article.

Palestinians inspecting a destroyed tower in Gaza City on Tuesday.PHOTO: MOHAMMED SABER/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

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