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24 Dead as Israel Hits Hamas  05/11 06:38

   Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza early Tuesday, hitting the high-rise 
home of a Hamas field commander and two border tunnels dug by militants, as 
Hamas and other armed groups fired dozens of rockets toward Israel.

   GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza early 
Tuesday, hitting the high-rise home of a Hamas field commander and two border 
tunnels dug by militants, as Hamas and other armed groups fired dozens of 
rockets toward Israel. The escalation in the conflict was sparked by weeks of 
tensions in contested Jerusalem.

   Since sundown Monday when the cross-border attacks began, 24 Palestinians -- 
including nine children -- were killed in Gaza, most by airstrikes, Gaza health 
officials said. The Israeli military said 15 of the dead were militants. During 
the same period, Gaza militants fired more than 250 rockets toward Israel, 
injuring six Israeli civilians in a direct hit on an apartment building.

   In a further sign of rising tensions, Israel signaled it is widening its 
military campaign. The military said it is sending troop reinforcements to the 
Gaza border and the defense minister ordered the mobilization of 5,000 reserve 
soldiers.

   In the past, cross-border fighting between Israel and Hamas, the group that 
rules Gaza, would typically end after a few days, often helped by 
behind-the-scenes mediation by Qatar, Egypt and others. It was not clear if 
such a resolution would come this time.

   Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that fighting could 
"continue for some time." Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military 
spokesman, told reporters Tuesday that the military was in "the early stages" 
of strikes against Gaza targets that it had planned well in advance.

   The overnight rockets and airstrikes were preceded by hours of clashes 
between Palestinians and Israeli security forces, including dramatic 
confrontations at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a sacred site to both 
Jews and Muslims. In fighting in the contested city and across the West Bank, 
more than 700 Palestinians were hurt, including nearly 500 who were treated at 
hospitals.

   In a sign of widening unrest, hundreds of residents of Arab communities 
across Israel staged overnight demonstrations -- denouncing the recent actions 
of Israeli security forces against Palestinians -- in one of the largest 
protests by Palestinian citizens in Israel in recent years.

   The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.

   Netanyahu has been acting as a caretaker prime minister since an 
inconclusive parliamentary election in March. He tried and failed to form a 
coalition government with his hardline and ultra-Orthodox allies, and the task 
was handed to his political rivals last week. One of those rivals is Israel's 
defense minister who is overseeing the Gaza campaign. It is not clear if and to 
what extent the toxic political atmosphere is spilling over into military 
decision-making, though the rival camps have unanimously expressed support for 
striking Hamas hard.

   Israeli media have reported that the new round of violence is slowing 
efforts by Netanyahu's rivals to form a ruling coalition among parties with a 
broad range of ideologies, but a shared goal of toppling Netanyahu. The support 
of an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is key for the anti-Netanyahu 
bloc's efforts. The party's leader, Mansour Abbas, has essentially said he'll 
work with whatever political camp offers the most improvements in Arab 
communities, but the current tensions might deter him from joining a coalition, 
at least for now.

   The current round of violence in Jerusalem coincided with the start of the 
Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in mid-April. Critics say heavy-handed police 
measures helped stoke nightly unrest, including a decision to temporarily seal 
off a popular gathering spot where Palestinian residents would meet after 
evening prayers. Another flashpoint was the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh 
Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are under treat of eviction by Jewish 
settlers.

   Over the weekend, confrontations erupted at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, 
which is the third holiest site of Islam and the holiest site in Judaism.

   For four successive days, Israel police fired tear gas, stun grenades and 
rubber bullets at Palestinians in the compound who hurled stones and chairs. 
Hundreds of Palestinians were hurt, requiring treatment at hospitals. Two dozen 
officers were also injured. At times, police fired stun grenades into the 
carpeted mosque.

   On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza, setting off air 
raid sirens as far as Jerusalem, after giving Israel a deadline to withdraw 
Israeli security forces from the compound. From there on, the escalation was 
rapid.

   Conricus, the army spokesman, said Gaza militants fired more than 250 
rockets at Israel, with about one-third falling short and landing in Gaza.

   The army said that a rocket landed a direct hit on a seven-story apartment 
block in the coastal Israeli city of Ashkelon. Photos and videos from the scene 
showed a large hole in the side of the building. Israeli paramedic service 
Magen David Adom said it treated six people injured in the rocket strike. Two 
were hospitalized in moderate condition.

   Conricus said the military hit 130 targets in Gaza, including the high-rise 
home of a Hamas field commander and two tunnels militants were digging under 
the border with Israel. In all, Israel killed 15 militants, Conricus said. He 
said Israel's new system of concrete barriers and electronic sensors, intended 
to thwart tunnel digging, has proven effective.

   He did not address Gaza Health Ministry reports that nine children were 
among 24 Palestinians killed overnight.

   In Gaza, most of the deaths were attributed to airstrikes. However, seven of 
the deaths were members of a single family, including three children, who died 
in an explosion in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun and it was not clear 
if the blast was caused by an Israeli airstrike or errant rocket.

   More than 100 Gazans were wounded in the airstrikes, the Health Ministry 
said.

   In one, an Israeli missile hit the upper floors of an apartment building in 
the Shati refugee camp on the edge of Gaza City early Tuesday, killing two men 
and a woman inside, according to health officials.

   Israel had struck scores of Gaza homes in its 2014 war with Hamas, arguing 
it was aiming at militants, but also killing many civilians. The practice drew 
broad international condemnation at the time.

   Israel's tactics in Jerusalem have drawn angry reactions from the Muslim 
world.

   Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia said in a statement that it condemns in the 
strongest terms what it said were attacks by Israeli forces against the 
sanctity of Al-Aqsa and the safety of its worshippers. The Saudi Foreign 
Ministry called Tuesday on the international community to hold Israeli forces 
responsible for any escalation.

   Separately, the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation is holding an 
emergency meeting of its permanent representatives in Jiddah to discuss the 
tensions.

 
 
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