Israel, Hamas trade more rockets in escalating conflict. Egypt officials arrive to negotiate cease-fire, officials say

CAIRO – An Egyptian delegation is in Tel Aviv for talks with Israeli officials as part of efforts to negotiate a cease-fire in the escalating conflict with Gaza, Egyptian intelligence officials said Thursday.

The two officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to brief the media. The same delegation met with Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip first, they said, and crossed into Israel by land. Egypt has played a mediating role in the past between the sides.

Late Wednesday, Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shukry, condemned Israeli attacks on Palestinian territory in a phone call with his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi. He said it was important for both sides to avoid escalation and resorting to military means, according to a readout of the call.

Weary Palestinians somberly marked the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan on Thursday, as Hamas and Israel traded more rockets and airstrikes and Jewish-Arab violence raged across Israel.

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The violence has reached deeper into Israel than at any time since the 2000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising. Arab and Jewish mobs are rampaging through the streets, savagely beating people and torching cars, and flights have been canceled or diverted away from the country’s main airport.

The escalating fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers has echoed — and perhaps even exceeded — their devastating 2014 war. That conflict and two others were largely confined to the impoverished and blockaded Palestinian territory and Israeli communities on the frontier. But this round — which like the intifada, began in Jerusalem — seems to be rippling far and wide, tearing apart the country at its seams.

Meanwhile, in Gaza residents are bracing for more devastation as militants fire one barrage of rockets after another and Israel carries out waves of bone-rattling airstrikes, sending plumes of smoke rising into the air. Since the rockets began Monday, Israel has toppled three high-rise buildings that it said housed Hamas facilities after warning civilians to evacuate.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll has climbed to 83 Palestinians, including 17 children and seven women, with more than 480 people wounded. Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of seven militants, while Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, acknowledged that a top commander and several other members were killed. Israel says the number of militants killed is much higher than Hamas has acknowledged.

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A picture taken Thursday shows a ball of fire engulfing the Al-Walid building, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike on Gaza city early in the morning. An Israeli strike destroyed another multi-story building in Gaza City the previous night, as the Jewish state continued its heavy bombardment of the Palestinian enclave. (Photo: AFP via Getty Images)

A total of seven people have been killed in Israel. Among them were a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a 6-year-old child hit in a rocket attack.

The fighting comes as Muslims mark Eid al-Fitr, the end of a month of daily fasting that is usually a festive time when families shop for new clothes and gather for large feasts.

Instead, Hamas urged the faithful to mark communal Eid prayers inside their homes or the nearest mosques instead of out in the open, as is traditional.

Hassan Abu Shaaban tried to lighten the mood by passing out candy to passers-by after prayers, but acknowledged “there is no atmosphere for Eid at all.”

“It is all airstrikes, destruction and devastation,” he said. “May God help everyone.”

In Gaza’s southern town of Khan Younis, dozens of mourners marched through the streets carrying the bodies of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old killed when an Israeli airstrike hit near their home on Wednesday.

Fighting between Israel and Palestinians in Gaza escalated on Wednesday, Israel launched dozens of airstrikes in a matter of minutes just after dawn, while Palestinians continued a barrage of rocket fire toward Israel. (May 12)

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The owner of a five-story building in Gaza City, meanwhile, said he got a call from the Israeli military on Thursday asking him to evacuate it before an airstrike brought it down.

“The building is residential, what is in to hit?” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

The Israeli military later said the building housed intelligence offices used by Hamas.

Gaza militants continued to bombard Israel with nonstop rocket fire into Thursday. The attacks brought life to a standstill in southern communities near Gaza, but also reached as far north as the Tel Aviv area, about 70 kilometers (45 miles) away, for a second straight day.

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Israel has begun diverting some incoming flights from Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, to the Ramon airfield in the country’s far south, the Transportation Ministry said. Several flights have also been canceled.

The Israeli military says more than 1,600 rockets have been fired since Monday, with 400 falling short and landing inside Gaza. Israel’s missile defenses have intercepted 90% of the rockets. Israeli airstrikes have struck around 600 targets inside Gaza, the military said.

The Israeli army shared footage showing a rocket impact between apartment towers in the Tel Aviv suburb of Petah Tikva early Thursday, apparently sparking a large fire. It said the strike wounded people and caused significant damage.

“We’re coping, sitting at home, hoping it will be OK,” said Motti Haim, a resident of the central town of Beer Yaakov and father of two children. “It’s not simple running to the shelter. It’s not easy with the kids.”

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