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.
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.