Gaza’s death toll soars as Israel kills senior Hamas commanders

Israeli air raids level buildings and kill dozens of Palestinians in Gaza, while Hamas rockets kill several Israelis.

Mourners recite a prayer over the body of Majd Abu Saadahthe, a Palestinian killed in an Israeli air attack, during his funeral in the town of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip [Said Khatib/AFP]

The death toll in Gaza has soared in the worst escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in years after Israel killed a string of senior Hamas military figures and destroyed three multistorey towers as it hammered the Gaza Strip with air raids.

Palls of grey smoke rose in Gaza on Wednesday, as Israeli air attacks struck apartment towers and blasted multiple Hamas security installations. In Israel, hundreds of rockets fired by Gaza’s Hamas rulers and other groups at times overwhelmed missile defences and sent air raid sirens and explosions echoing across Tel Aviv, Israel’s biggest metropolitan area, and other cities.

Gaza’s Ministry of Health said the overall death toll since the latest offensive began stood at at least 65, including 16 children. At least 365 people have been wounded.

Six people have been killed on the Israeli side by rocket fire, including the first death of an Israeli soldier in this round of conflict.

The other deaths have been that of civilians, including three women and two children, one of them a six-year-old wounded in a rocket attack on an apartment building in the city of Sderot. Dozens in Israel have been wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the brigade commander for Gaza City was among 15 other Hamas members who had been killed on Wednesday.

“This is just the beginning. We’ll hit them like they’ve never dreamed possible,” he said.

Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from southern Israel, said according to the Israeli media reports, Israel is discussing the option of using ground forces along with air raids.

“That is something Israel has not done since 2014. It carries with it all sorts of risks in terms of the lives of Israeli soldiers … So that is not a decision that will be taken lightly, but it does seem that the option at least is being put in place,” he said.

Hostilities flared after Hamas issued an ultimatum on Monday demanding that Israel stand down its security forces from the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City after a violent crackdown against Palestinians.

Monday marked the third consecutive day that Israeli police had stormed Islam’s third holiest site, injuring hundreds by firing rubber-coated steel rounds, stun grenades and tear gas at Palestinian worshippers in the final days of the holy month of Ramadan.

That escalation was sparked by Israel’s plans to forcefully expel residents from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem to make way for Israeli settlers.

‘Open-ended’ confrontation

Hamas confirmed that its Gaza City commander, Bassem Issa, was killed in an Israeli air attack along with other senior members of the group on Wednesday.

Its leader Ismail Haniyeh added: “The confrontation with the enemy is open-ended.”

A Palestinian source said truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had made no progress towards ending the violence.

Israel’s military has carried out more than 350 air raids on the crowded coastal enclave, targeting what it calls military sites. Gaza armed groups have reportedly launched more than 1,000 rockets since Monday.

Describing the scenes of destruction as “harrowing”, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a senior aide, Hady Amr, would be sent to urge Israelis and Palestinians to seek calm.

Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin reaffirmed “ironclad support for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself”.

Rescuers and people gather amid the rubble in front of Al-Sharouk tower in Gaza City that collapsed after being hit by an Israeli air raid [Mohammed Abed/AFP]

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel would continue to strike Hamas to restore long-term calm, according to a statement on their call.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday that the international community should “give Israel a strong and deterrent lesson” over its conduct towards the Palestinians.

The fighting is the heaviest between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in the Hamas-ruled enclave, and concern is growing that the situation could spiral out of control.

Towers flattened in Gaza

In Gaza, a multistorey residential building and a tower housing media outlets collapsed after Israel warned occupants in advance to evacuate, and another structure was heavily damaged in the air attacks.

The Al-Sharouk tower, which housed the bureau of the Al-Aqsa television channel, is the third tall structure levelled by Israeli fire since the bombing campaign began on Monday.

Youmna al-Sayed, a journalist reporting from Gaza City, told Al Jazeera, the tower hosted the offices of many media offices in the Gaza Strip and is in a very densely populated area.

“Targeting such a building which holds media offices is a clear message by the Israeli occupation that it does not want any media to tell the truth of what is going on in the Gaza Strip: the crazy air raids that are taking place in every moment; the killing and targeting of civilians of residential buildings and apartments; hundreds of Palestinians have been wounded in just two days of escalation,” al-Sayed said.

Hamas said it fired 130 rockets at Israel in the wake of the Israeli attack on the Al-Shorouq tower.

Israelis ran to shelters or lay on pavements in some communities far from Gaza.

“All of Israel is under attack. It’s a very scary situation to be in,” said Margo Aronovic, a 26-year-old student, in Tel Aviv.

Tension also spilled over in mixed Arab-Jewish towns in Israel where there have been demonstrations over the hostilities.

Israel imposed a night curfew over the Arab-majority city of Lod, also known as Lydd.

A Palestinian man was shot dead, and a synagogue and dozens of vehicles were set on fire. The mayor likened it to a “civil war”.

Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett said Israel has sent a significant amount of military hardware towards the border with Gaza.

“That doesn’t mean that there is necessarily going to be a ground invasion – certainly there are significant risks as far as Israel is concerned, given how much it has already been able to do from the air,” Fawcett said.

“But we’ve seen a number of tracked vehicles, heavy artillery, and self-propelled howitzers being put into place on the back of flat-bed lorries, which have then been returning empty. So certainly there is preparation for a different phase, or a least a sign of a show of force.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies