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As Fighting Escalates, Death Toll in Gaza and Neighboring Israel Rises to 40

By VOA News May 12, 2021

At least 40 people in the Gaza Strip and Jerusalem have been killed in fighting between Hamas and Israeli security forces that escalated Wednesday.

Israel launched a new round of air strikes on Gaza early Wednesday morning, targeting police and security installations. A multi-story residential and office building was heavily damaged by the strikes. No one was in the building at the time of the air strikes.

An earlier round of strikes Tuesday leveled a multi-story residential building that also housed several Hamas offices. Residents in the building and surrounding area were warned to evacuate before the building was destroyed.

The air strikes, which Israeli military forces say targeted rocket launch sites, intelligence offices and the homes of Hamas leaders, have killed 35 people in Gaza, including 10 children, according to Gaza's Health Ministry. More than 200 others have been injured in the air strikes.

Meanwhile, five Israelis have been killed in Hamas rocket attacks Tuesday and early Wednesday, including two people in the city of Ashkelon. Hamas has fired hundreds of rockets towards the Israeli city of Tel Aviv and its suburbs since Monday, including a barrage of 130 missiles late Tuesday in response to the destruction of the high-rise building.

The deadly exchange of rocket fire and air strikes, the biggest fighting between the Palestinian militant group and Israeli forces since the 2014 war in Gaza, were sparked by growing unrest over control of Jerusalem and attempts by Jewish settlers to take over Arab-controlled communities.

The tensions have spilled over into the West Bank, where hundreds of residents in Arab communities across Israel staged overnight protests against recent actions of Israeli security forces against Palestinians. A 26-year-old Palestinian was killed Tuesday in clashes with Israeli troops in a refugee camp near the city of Hebron. In the city of Lod, near Tel Aviv, a 25-year-old Arab man was shot and killed by a Jewish resident.

More than 700 Palestinians have been hurt fighting in the contested city of Jerusalem and across the West Bank.

US Reaction

White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Tuesday the U.S. condemns the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups, and said President Joe Biden's "support for Israel's security, for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, is fundamental and will never waiver."

She added the current administration supports a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict.

"We believe Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, dignity and prosperity, and U.S. officials have in recent weeks spoken candidly to Israeli officials about how evictions of Palestinian families who have lived for years, sometimes decades, in their homes and how demolitions of these homes work against our common interests and achieving a solution to the conflict," she said.

UN emergency meeting

The U.N. Security Council is planning to hold an emergency closed-door meeting Wednesday to discuss the situation. Sources say the United States is delaying efforts by the Council to issue a formal statement on the escalating fighting out of concerns it could harm behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence.

With the Israeli deaths, along with 10 injuries, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said officials have decided to "increase both the strength and rate of the strikes" on the Gaza Strip against the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"Hamas will receive blows now that it didn't expect," he said.

Hamas fired some rockets minutes after a 6 p.m. local deadline had passed Monday evening that had been given to Israel to pull its security forces from the al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City. Frequent clashes have erupted in recent days at the compound, which Jews consider their holiest site and Muslims their third most important.

As tensions and armed clashes mounted, the Israeli military said it is sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border and mobilizing 5,000 reserve soldiers.

At times, over the past decades, fighting between Israel and Hamas, the group that rules Gaza, has lasted for a few days. But now, Netanyahu has warned that fighting could "continue for some time." An Israeli military spokesman told reporters Tuesday that the military was in "the early stages" of strikes against Gaza targets.

"Israel will respond very forcefully. We will not tolerate attacks on our territory, our capital, our citizens and our soldiers. Whoever strikes us will pay a heavy price," he said.

A spokesman for Hamas' military wing, Abu Obeida, said the rocket attacks were a response to what he called Israeli "crimes and aggression" in Jerusalem.

What sparked violence

The recent violence follows weeks of mounting tensions and confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli troops in the city, sparked in part by Israeli plans to carry out evictions of Palestinian families in a neighborhood of east Jerusalem.

A lawsuit over the evictions has reached Israel's Supreme Court. However, the court postponed a key ruling in the case Monday, citing the "circumstances."

To avoid the clashes, Israeli organizers of a march to celebrate the Jewish state's 1967 capture of east Jerusalem altered its parade route to avoid the Muslim Quarter of the Old City.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its unified capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem to be the capital of a future state.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned the rocket attacks, saying, "The ongoing violence in Jerusalem and Gaza must stop. We need an immediate de-escalation on all sides."

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