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Gaza attacks: More children killed in Israeli raids as calls for calm grow

Meanwhile, hundreds of Hamas rockets hit Israel and Palestinian protesters face intensified assaults as they defy Israeli crackdown
Thousands of people demonstrated outside of a building that houses the Israeli consulate to protest Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on 12 May, 2021 in Chicago, Illinois (AFP)

The death toll from the Israeli air strikes on Gaza, now on their fourth day, has reached 69 in the early hours of Thursday, while Hamas continues to fire retaliatory rockets on Israeli cities causing casualties.

According to Wafa news agency, Gaza rescue crews at dawn on Thursday recovered the bodies of a Palestinian couple from under the rubble of a building, which Israeli forces targeted Wednesday night in Sheikh Zayed City in the town of Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip.

Gaza's health ministry on Thursday said the death toll from Israeli strikes had reached 83, including 17 children and seven women, while 487 people had also been wounded.

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In Israel, six civilians, including a five-year-old, have been killed as a result of the missiles fired by Palestinian armed factions, according to Israeli media. One soldier has also been killed. 

Meanwhile, Israel's army on Thursday said it had received a rocket warning in the north of the country, the first time the alert has been triggered there since hostilities soared earlier this week.

The approximately 1,500 rockets fired from Gaza by Hamas's military wing Al-Qassam Brigades since Monday had so far set off warnings in southern and central Israel, but not in the north, the army said.

However in the small hours of Thursday morning, alarms not only sounded in the economic capital Tel Aviv in the middle of the country - where residents rushed to shelters - but also in Jezreel Valley in the north.

The missiles have led Israel to divert an incoming flight from Ben Gurion Airport on Thursday to a southern airport designed to serve as a wartime alternative to its main international gateway outside Tel Aviv, aviation tracker Avi Scharf said on Twitter.

The El Al Israel Airlines flight 332 was en route to Ramon Airport near Eilat, Scharf, an editor with Israel's Haaretz newspaper said. Online data suggested the flight had come from Brussels. 

Hamas targets bombed

The army also said in a tweet that it has targeted "strategically significant buildings belonging to Hamas & a Hamas naval force squad".

The targets of the air strikes included Hamas' main bank and counterintelligence infrastructure, the army added.

In addition to the bombardment of Gaza, Palestinian citizens and residents of Israel have faced mobs of far-right Israelis, who have attacked businesses and people.

In scenes repeated across several cities, gangs of youths threw stones and stormed stores belonging to Palestinians.

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The epicentre of the violence was the Tel Aviv area, with ultra-nationalists targeting Palestinian interests in the nearby cities of Lod (known to Palestinians as Lydd) and Bat-Yam.

Israel had announced on Monday the launch of a new operation - dubbed "Guardian of the Walls" - on the Gaza Strip following rockets fired by Palestinian groups on Israel in protest against the storming of al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest site for Muslims.

Tensions continued to escalate on Thursday morning as Palestinians carried on protesting the forced evictions set to take place in East Jerusalem's Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood. 

On 2 May, Israel's Supreme Court ordered that 40 residents of Sheikh Jarrah, including 10 children, be removed from their homes, which would subsequently be given to Israeli settlers. The order sparked protests in East Jerusalem, which have spread across cities in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

In a provocative move that ignited further Palestinian protests, Israeli forces have carried out several violent raids on worshippers inside al-Aqsa Mosque and stormed the mosque complex repeatedly since Monday, wounding hundreds of Palestinians.

Muna El-Kurd, a resident of Sheikh Jarrah and a journalist who has been raising awareness about forced evictions in the occupied East Jerusalem neighbourhood, described an increasingly critical and tense atmosphere on Wednesday evening, with Israeli police forces continuing to patrol the area. 

“Police forces harassed us and beat my brother Mohammed as they tried to push us out of the neighbourhood,“ she told Middle East Eye correspondent Latifeh Abdellatif. “People were filming but I didn’t manage to capture everything,” she added.

“They tore Mohammed’s shirt and kept pushing us back. They pushed me into the wall, I injured my hand, I don’t know what happened to it.”

In videos shared online by El-Kurd, her brother Mohammed, who has been vocal about the forced evictions on social media, was shown being dragged away by Israeli forces. He was later released.

Many other locals continue to document the Israeli forces’ tactics of harassing and forcing residents to leave the area.

A truck burns at the entrance of the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, where a state of emergency has been declared following civil unrest, on May 12, 2021
A truck burns at the entrance of the mixed Jewish-Palestinian city of Lod, where a state of emergency has been declared following civil unrest, on 12 May 2021 (AFP)

In videos shared online on Wednesday, residents of the neighbourhood prayed in congregation for those who lost their lives in Gaza as a result of Israeli air strikes. 

In the same area, Israeli youths played songs on loudspeakers, provoking Palestinian locals. 

Police remained stationed in the neighbourhood - many heavily armed and on horseback.

Also on Thursday, a Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli forces in Nablus after he opened fire at two Israeli soldiers on Wednesday, as tensions boiled over in many parts of the occupied territories.

Israeli forces confirmed the incident but did not clarify the identity of the Israelis who were wounded. 

The Israeli Channel 7 website stated that a Palestinian at the Sela junction near the village of Madama, south of Nablus, shot at a group of soldiers, wounding two of them, before being shot and killed on the spot.

US 'taking side of occupation'

Reiterating the US line since the start of the crisis, US President Joe Biden has once again defended Israel’s behaviour over the past few days.

In talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, the Democrat leader said: “Israel has the right to defend itself.”

The statement prompted criticism by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the most prominent progressive lawmakers in the United States.

"Blanket statements like these with little context or acknowledgement of what precipitated this cycle of violence - namely, the expulsions of Palestinians and attacks on al-Aqsa Mosque - dehumanise Palestinians & imply the US will look the other way at human rights violations. It’s wrong," Ocasio-Cortez said in a series of tweets.

'This is not neutral language. It takes a side - the side of occupation,'

- Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

"By only stepping in to name Hamas’ actions - which are condemnable - & refusing to acknowledge the rights of Palestinians, Biden reinforces the false idea that Palestinians instigated this cycle of violence. This is not neutral language. It takes a side - the side of occupation."

Earlier in the day, Ocasio-Cortez signed a letter calling on the US administration to "apply pressure" on Israel to halt the campaign of displacement and home demolitions against Palestinians in Jerusalem. 

On Wednesday, the UN Security Council held another emergency meeting on worsening hostilities between Israel and Palestinians, without agreeing on a joint statement due to opposition from the United States, Israel's key ally, diplomats told AFP.

According to several sources, 14 of the 15 members of the Security Council were in favour of adopting a joint declaration aimed at reducing tension.

However, the United States saw the UN meeting as a sufficient show of concern, diplomats told AFP on condition of anonymity, and did not think a statement would "help de-escalate" the situation.

"The United States has been actively engaged in diplomacy behind the scenes with all parties, and across the region, to seek to de-escalate the situation. At this stage, a council statement would be counterproductive," said one source familiar with discussions, also speaking anonymously.

In a sign of frustration, four Security Council members - Norway, Estonia, France and Ireland - issued their own joint statement.

"The large numbers of civilian casualties, including children, from Israeli air strikes in Gaza, and of Israeli fatalities from rockets launched from Gaza, are both worrying and unacceptable," it said.

"We call on Israel to cease settlement activities, demolitions and evictions, including in East Jerusalem," they wrote.

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UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland had warned the meeting that the "situation has deteriorated since Monday... there is a risk of a spiral of violence," according to a diplomatic source.

Meanwhile, Biden's National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan discussed "efforts to achieve calm" in Israel and the Palestinian territories during a phone call with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohamed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, the US National Security Council said.

"They discussed their shared concerns about the current situation in Gaza and Jerusalem," spokesperson Emily Horne said in a statement.

"Mr Sullivan made clear that the ongoing rocket attacks by Hamas into Israel are unacceptable and must end. They discussed their ongoing outreach to relevant parties in support of efforts to achieve calm, and agreed to remain in close touch in the period ahead."

Earlier in the day, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki stressed that the administration is intensifying efforts - in private - to de-escalate the conflict, saying that US officials  had conducted more than 25 high level calls with regional states.

She claimed that Qatar and Egypt have sway over Hamas.

"We're in regular dialogue multiple times per day... with Egyptian and Qatari officials, who have significant influence over Hamas. Our objective here is de-escalation as we look to protecting the people in the region."