Israeli forces hit Hamas tunnels in Gaza as all-out war looms; more rockets rain down (video)

Israeli forces hit Hamas tunnels in Gaza as all-out war looms; more rockets rain down (video)

18:55 - Israel continued to press its air campaign against the Gaza Strip on Friday after a devastating overnight assault by artillery and warplanes aimed at destroying an extensive system of tunnels built by the militant Hamas group to move fighters, rockets and other weapons.

JERUSALEM - Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocket attacks on Israel both raged into Friday evening with no sign of abating. The reciprocal bombardment has resulted in the deaths of 126 in Gaza and nine in Israel, health and emergency officials say, with hundreds more injured over five days of fighting.

Violence between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel also continued in cities across the country, while new clashes erupted in the occupied West Bank, which had been relatively calm in recent days, with skirmishes in Ramallah, Nablus, Tulkarem and other cities. Eleven Palestinians were killed in West Bank confrontations with security forces, according to health officials.

By sunset, unrest flared in several Arab neighborhoods of East Jerusalem, where Palestinians throwing stones and firebombs battled police wielding stun grenades and tear gas, and protesters set cars and trees afire. The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem reported that Israeli settlers had set fire to swaths of Palestinian farmland in the West Bank.

Dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters from Lebanon, meanwhile, broke through a border fence, crossed into Israeli territory and set a fire in an open field near the northern town of Metula. Soldiers shot at them, and they returned to Lebanese territory, according to the Israeli military. One of the demonstrators, a 21-year-old Lebanese man who was shot after rushing the border, died later from his wounds, according to Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s official TV channel.

The overnight assault on Gaza involved 160 Israeli warplanes and three brigades of ground forces, including tanks, according to a spokesman for the Israeli military. Although ground forces participated, they did not enter the Gaza Strip, said Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, contradicting a statement the night before that a ground assault on the enclave was underway. The Israeli military said its operation targeted a sprawling system of tunnels that Hamas has spent years building underneath Gaza’s streets.

“The aim of that joint activity of air and ground forces was to deliver a severe blow to Hamas’s underground tunnel system, which we refer to as the ‘metro,’ which is essentially a city beneath the city of Gaza,” Conricus said. “It is a strategic asset that Hamas has invested many years of effort and time and significant resources to construct.”

It was too soon to say how much of the tunnel system was destroyed, he said, but he added that “quite a lot of enemy combatants” were killed in the operation.

“Unlike our very elaborate efforts to clear civilian areas before we strike high-rises or large buildings inside Gaza, that wasn’t feasible this time,” Conricus said, adding that the operation targeted Hamas tunnels and infrastructure with “precision-guided munitions.”

The barrage came around midnight and lasted uninterrupted for about 40 minutes, forcing hundreds of residents of the northern Gaza Strip to flee their homes. A Palestinian humanitarian group said at least 10 civilians had been killed in the attack.

Abed Nofal, 35, was on the phone in his home in Gaza’s Jabalya neighborhood, located next to farmland that he considered an unlikely target, when he saw a rocket contrail streaking his way. He had begun running to the far side of the apartment when an explosion tore through the building. In the shattering confusion, he helped his sobbing wife, who is expecting their first child, to her feet, and they ran for a shelter down the road.

“I feel like life is losing its meaning,” Nofal, a driver for humanitarian groups, said in a telephone interview. “It’s like every time I’m working hard to achieve something, then in one second everything is not there.”

Civilians on the Israeli side of the border also spent another night under threat as Hamas continued to launch rockets almost continuously into the southern part of the country. The Israeli military said more than 2,000 rockets had been fired from Gaza since the fighting began Monday, with about 400 of them falling short and landing in Gaza itself.

Nine residents of Israel, including one soldier and an Indian guest worker, have been killed by rockets that struck homes, cars and a bus. A 50-year-old woman died Friday morning during an air raid from injuries she sustained running for shelter. Air raids have been a daily, often hourly trial for millions of Israelis.

Israel has also grown increasingly alarmed by the surge in sectarian clashes between Jewish and Arab Israelis, which saw police arrest more than 100 people Thursday night in towns across the country. With brawls breaking out in cities such as Haifa and Acre, long hailed as models of Arab-Jewish coexistence, many Israelis feared that the seeds of prolonged civil strife were being planted.

In the coastal city of Netanya, police arrested nine Jewish Israelis who were “walking around looking … to beat people up,” said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. In Beersheba in the south, 13 local Arab residents were arrested. In the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, police arrested 11 who “threw petrol bombs and attacked police officers,” Rosenfeld said. In Tel Aviv, two men carrying iron bars were detained, according to a police statement.

Police also arrested 43 people overnight in the central city of Lod, the scene of some of the worst communal violence and riots, for throwing gasoline bombs and rocks and attacking police officers, according to Rosenfeld.

Arab citizens of Israel have long accused the Israeli police of one-sided enforcement and not responding to incidents in their neighborhoods. In recent days, many have lodged the same complaint against order police units — paramilitary troops who normally patrol the West Bank and neighborhoods in East Jerusalem — that have been deployed throughout Israel to help quell the rioting. Arabs say the officers have turned out in force against Arab protesters but have been largely absent when Jewish violence occurs.

“The border police are responding to every incident that takes place on the ground,” Rosenfeld said in response, including incidents where “innocent civilians are under life-threatening situations.”

In a nationally televised speech, Netanyahu warned that the civil unrest put Israel in the position of fighting “a campaign on two fronts,” one of which was Gaza. “The second front: Israel’s cities,” he said, repeating his vow from a day earlier to deploy the military to prevent the “anarchy” of mob violence seen in several cities this week.

“I again call on the citizens of Israel not to take the law into their own hands; whoever does so will be punished severely,” he said. “We will act with full force against enemies from without and lawbreakers from within to restore calm to the state of Israel.”

As diplomats from the Middle East, Europe and the United States tried to broker a cease-fire before the conflict spiraled even further, U.N. Secretary General António Guterres called for calm, citing the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr, which began Thursday.

The current conflict was triggered after clashes earlier this month in Jerusalem among Palestinians, Israeli police and right-wing Jews. Tensions have been running high, in part, because of efforts by Israeli settlers to evict several Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Those tensions boiled over on Monday, when clashes between Israeli police and Arab protesters near Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque left more than 300 Palestinians injured.

Here’s what to know:

  • Israeli airstrikes have continued apace after a withering air and artillery assault early Friday targeting an extensive network of Hamas tunnels in the northern Gaza Strip.
  • Militants in Gaza fired dozens of rockets since Thursday night, bringing the total to about 1,800 over five days of violence, according to the Israeli military.
  • The death toll in Gaza climbed to 126, including 31 children, with 950 wounded, Gaza’s Health Ministry reported.
  • In Israel, two women died after falling while running for shelter, bringing the number of fatalities in the country to eight civilians and one soldier.
  • Unrest accelerated in West Bank cities, including Ramallah, Nablus and Tulkarem, with health officials reporting 11 Palestinians killed in clashes.

Rubin reported from Tel Aviv. Hazem Balousha in Gaza, Miriam Berger in Ramallah, West Bank, and Suzan Haidamous in Washington contributed to this report.

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