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Israel Steps Up Gaza Offensive         05/13 06:19

   Israel on Wednesday pressed ahead with a fierce military offensive in the 
Gaza Strip, killing as many as 10 senior Hamas military figures and toppling a 
pair of high-rise towers housing Hamas facilities in airstrikes. The Islamic 
militant group showed no signs of backing down and fired hundreds of rockets at 
Israeli cities.

   GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- Israel on Wednesday pressed ahead with a 
fierce military offensive in the Gaza Strip, killing as many as 10 senior Hamas 
military figures and toppling a pair of high-rise towers housing Hamas 
facilities in airstrikes. The Islamic militant group showed no signs of backing 
down and fired hundreds of rockets at Israeli cities.

   In just three days, this latest round of fighting between the bitter enemies 
has already begun to resemble -- and even exceed -- a devastating 50-day war in 
2014. Like in that previous war, neither side appears to have an exit strategy.

   But there are key differences. The fighting has triggered the worst 
Jewish-Arab violence inside Israel in decades. And looming in the background is 
an international war crimes investigation.

   Israel carried out an intense barrage of airstrikes just after sunrise, 
striking dozens of targets in several minutes that set off bone-rattling 
explosions across Gaza. Airstrikes continued throughout the day, filling the 
sky with pillars of smoke.

   At nightfall, the streets of Gaza City resembled a ghost town as people 
huddled indoors on the final night of Islam's holiest month of Ramadan. The 
evening, followed by the Eid al-Fitr holiday, is usually a time of vibrant 
night life, shopping and crowded restaurants.

   "There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide," said Zeyad Khattab, a 
44-year-old pharmacist who fled with a dozen other relatives to a family home 
in central Gaza after bombs pounded his apartment building in Gaza City. "That 
terror is impossible to describe."

   Gaza militants continued to bombard Israel with nonstop rocket fire 
throughout the day and into early 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) to the north, for a second 
straight day.

   The military said sirens also wailed in northern Israel's Emek area, or 
Jezreel Valley, the farthest the effects of Gaza rockets have reached since 
2014. The Israeli army also 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 left people wounded 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."

   Gaza's Health Ministry said the death toll rose to 69 Palestinians, 
including 16 children and six women. Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of 
seven militants, while Hamas acknowledged that a top commander and several 
other members were killed.

   Rescuers pulled the bodies of a man and his wife from the debris of their 
home that was hit by rockets in the latest Israeli airstrikes early Thursday, 
relatives said.

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

   The Israeli military claims the number of militants killed so far is much 
higher than Hamas has acknowledged.

   Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said at least 14 militants 
were killed Wednesday -- including 10 members of the "top management of Hamas" 
and four weapons experts. Altogether, he claimed some 30 militants have been 
killed since the fighting began.

   More raids conducted early Thursday were aimed at several "strategically 
significant" facilities for Hamas, including a bank and a compound for a naval 
squad, the military said.

   While United Nations and Egyptian officials have said that cease-fire 
efforts are underway, there were no signs of progress. Israeli television's 
Channel 12 reported late Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 
Security Cabinet authorized a widening of the offensive.

   U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the "indiscriminate 
launching of rockets" from civilian areas in Gaza toward Israeli population 
centers, but he also urged Israel to show "maximum restraint." President Joe 
Biden called Netanyahu to support Israel's right to defend itself and Secretary 
of State Antony J. Blinken said he was sending a senior diplomat to the region 
to try to calm tensions.

   The current eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem, where 
heavy-handed Israeli police tactics during Ramadan and the threatened eviction 
of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers ignited protests and 
clashes with police. A focal point was the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop 
compound that is revered by Jews and Muslims, where police fired tear gas and 
stun grenades at protesters who threw chairs and stones at them.

   Hamas, claiming to be defending Jerusalem, launched a barrage of rockets at 
the city late Monday, setting off days of fighting.

   The Israeli military says militants have fired about 1,500 rockets in just 
three days. That is roughly one-third the number fired during the entire 2014 
war.

   Israel, meanwhile, has struck over 350 targets in Gaza, a tiny territory 
where 2 million Palestinians have lived under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian 
blockade since Hamas took power in 2007. Two infantry brigades were sent to the 
area, indicating preparations for a possible ground invasion.

   In tactics echoing past wars, Israel has begun to target senior members of 
Hamas' military wing. It also has flattened three high-rise buildings in a 
tactic that has drawn international scrutiny in the past.

   Israel says the buildings all housed Hamas operations centers, but they also 
included residential apartments and businesses. In all cases, Israel fired 
warning shots, allowing people to flee, and there were no reports of casualties.

   The fighting has set off violent clashes between Arabs and Jews in Israel, 
in scenes unseen since 2000. Netanyahu warned that he was prepared to use an 
"iron fist if necessary" to calm the violence.

   But ugly clashes erupted across the country late Wednesday. Jewish and Arab 
mobs battled in the central city of Lod, the epicenter of the troubles, despite 
a state of emergency and nighttime curfew. In nearby Bat Yam, a mob of Jewish 
nationalists attacked an Arab motorist, dragged him from his car and beat him 
until he was motionless.

   In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military said it thwarted a 
Palestinian shooting attack that wounded two people. The Palestinian Health 
Ministry said the suspected gunman was killed. No details were immediately 
available.

   Still unclear is how the fighting in Gaza will affect Netanyahu's political 
future. He failed to form a government coalition after inconclusive 
parliamentary elections in March, and now his political rivals have three weeks 
to try to form one.

   His rivals have courted a small Islamist Arab party. But the longer the 
fighting lasts, the more it could hamper their attempts at forming a coalition. 
It could also boost Netanyahu if another election is held, since security is 
his strong suit with the public.

   Israel and Hamas have fought three wars since the Islamic militant group 
seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

   The International Criminal Court has launched an investigation into possible 
war crimes by Israel and Hamas. In a brief statement, ICC prosecutor Fatou 
Bensouda said she had noted "with great concern" the escalation of violence and 
"the possible commission of crimes."

   The ICC is looking into Israeli actions in past wars in Gaza. Israel is not 
a member of the court, does not recognize the ICC's jurisdiction and rejects 
the accusations. But in theory, the ICC could issue warrants and try to arrest 
Israeli suspects while they are traveling overseas.

   Conricus, the military spokesman, said Israeli forces respect international 
laws on armed conflict and do their utmost to minimize civilian casualties. 
Israel blames Hamas for civilian casualties because the group fires rockets 
from residential areas.

   Emanuel Gross, a professor emeritus the University of Haifa law school, said 
Israel should "take into consideration the concerns of the ICC." But he said he 
believes the military is on solid legal ground while rockets are striking 
Israeli cities.

   "That's the real meaning of self defense," he said. "If you are attacked by 
a terrorist group, you defend yourself."

 
 
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