Israel and Hamas hostilities escalate after police violence at al-Aqsa

Israeli warplanes are pounding the Gaza Strip as Hamas fires rockets deep into the Jewish state in a significant escalation of hostilities after Israeli police injured hundreds of Muslim protesters at Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque.

Israel launched dozens of targeted air strikes after Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, unleashed rockets towards Jerusalem on Monday — the furthest into Israel since 2014 — and fired scores more overnight into the area surrounding the Gaza Strip.

The US condemned Hamas’s rocket barrage, while the Arab League described Israel’s response in Gaza as “indiscriminate and irresponsible” and “a miserable show of force at the expense of children’s blood”. Gazan authorities say 24 people had been killed. Egyptian, Qatari and UN officials who mediate between Israel and Hamas were trying to restore calm, an Israeli official said on Tuesday.

The anger has built for days as Israeli police injured almost 600 Palestinian Muslims in and near the mosque, a holy site for both Muslims and Jews, since Friday. Protesters, angered by restrictions near the mosque and the planned evictions of Arabs in East Jerusalem, have clashed with riot police on horseback. Police sprayed skunk water and used tear gas and stun grenades to clear crowds. Defence minister Benny Gantz on Tuesday ordered 5,000 reserve troops back to duty.

Palestinians evacuate a building targeted by an Israeli bombardment in Gaza City © Mahmud Hams/AFP/Getty

Hamas stepped into the conflict on Monday evening after it gave Israel a deadline of 6pm to remove its forces from the mosque and from a nearby neighbourhood where Jewish settlers, backed by Israeli rightwing politicians, want to evict dozens of Palestinians from their homes.

Hamas fired at least 250 rockets from Monday night through Tuesday afternoon while riots broke out in several Israeli cities between Palestinians and local police, and with Israeli soldiers in the occupied West Bank. Six Israelis were injured in the rocket attacks, according to Israeli medics.

Two rockets hit a house and a multistorey apartment building in Ashkelon, a city near the Gaza Strip, Kan Radio reported on Tuesday, saying 30 people were being treated at a nearby hospital.

Israel has responded with dozens of air strikes, saying it was aiming for military targets to contain Hamas. At least 24 Palestinians were killed, including nine children, the Gaza health ministry said. It added that at least 100 people had been injured.

Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, warned that by targeting Jerusalem with rockets, Hamas had “crossed a red line”, adding: “Israel will respond with great force.” Hamas’s military wing said on Monday night: “Jerusalem called, and we answered.”

Tensions had risen as a court case regarding the evictions coincided with an annual Israeli celebration that began on Sunday called Jerusalem Day, where Israelis celebrate their conquest of Arab East Jerusalem in 1967. The hearing has been postponed.

The violence coincides with a precarious time in Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s position has been weakened as coalition talks progress between his rivals, who are close to securing a government that could dethrone the five-time premier. His rightwing supporters see the evictions in East Jerusalem as a key part of a long-running strategy to replace Arabs with Jews in the Holy City.

Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo

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