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Toll mounts as airstrikes target Gaza

Facing Hamas rockets,Israel steps up assault by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | May 16, 2021 at 5:55 a.m.
Palestinians attend the funeral of two women and eight children of the Abu Hatab family in Gaza City, who were killed after an Israeli air strike, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Israel escalated its airstrikes in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, bombing the home of a senior Hamas political leader, killing a family of 10 in a refugee camp and destroying a high-rise building that housed The Associated Press and other media outlets.

The Hamas militant group continued a stream of rocket fire into Israel, including a late-night barrage on Tel Aviv. A man was killed when a rocket hit his home in a suburb of the seaside metropolis.

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With a U.S. envoy on the ground, calls for a cease-fire increased after five days of violence that have left at least 145 Palestinians dead in Gaza -- including 41 children -- and eight dead on the Israeli side, including a 5-year-old child.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who has called for a deescalation but has backed Israel's campaign, spoke separately by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday.

Still, Israel stepped up its assault, vowing to destroy the capabilities of Gaza's Hamas rulers. The violence, set off by a Hamas rocket Monday, came after weeks of mounting tensions and heavy-handed Israeli measures in contested Jerusalem.

Early today, Israeli warplanes struck several buildings and roads in a vital part of Gaza City. Photos circulated by residents and journalists showed that the airstrikes created a crater that blocked one of the main roads leading to Shifa, the largest hospital in the Gaza Strip.

The Gaza Health Ministry said the latest airstrikes left at least two people dead and 25 wounded. There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military.

On Saturday, Israel bombed the home of Khalil al-Hayeh, a senior figure in Hamas' political branch, saying the building served as part of the group's "terrorist infrastructure." There was no immediate report on al-Hayeh's fate or on any casualties.

The bombing of al-Hayeh's home showed Israel was expanding its campaign beyond the group's military commanders. Israel said it has killed dozens of people in Hamas' military branch, though Hamas and the smaller group Islamic Jihad have only acknowledged 20 dead members.

Also on Saturday, Israel leveled the 12-story al-Jalaa Building, where the offices of the AP, Al-Jazeera television network and other media outlets are located, along with several floors of apartments.

Netanyahu alleged in a televised speech Saturday evening that Hamas military intelligence officials were operating inside the building. The Israeli military also has accused the militant group of using journalists as human shields, but it provided no evidence to back up the claims.

The AP has operated from the building for 15 years, including through three previous conflicts between Israel and Hamas, without being targeted directly. During those conflicts as well as the current one, the news agency's cameras from its top-floor office and roof terrace offered 24-hour live shots as militants' rockets arched toward Israel and as Israeli airstrikes hammered Gaza City and its surroundings.

In the afternoon, the military called the building's owner and warned that a strike would come within an hour. AP staffers and other occupants evacuated safely, but reporters had little chance to retrieve notes, records, laptops and other equipment.

Soon after, three missiles hit the building and destroyed it, bringing it crashing down in a giant cloud of dust.

"The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today," AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement. "We are shocked and horrified that the Israeli military would target and destroy the building housing AP's bureau and other news organizations in Gaza."

"This is an incredibly disturbing development. We narrowly avoided a terrible loss of life," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Pruitt late Saturday to express concern about the incident. The State Department said Blinken offered his support for independent journalists and noted the "indispensability" of their reporting in conflict zones.

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus claimed that Hamas used the building for a military intelligence office and for weapons development. He said that "a highly advanced technological tool" that the militant group used in the fighting was "within or on the building."

Gallery: Middle East conflict, 5-15-2021

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But Conricus said he could not provide evidence to back up the allegations without "compromising" intelligence efforts. He added, however: "I think it's a legitimate request to see more information, and I will try to provide it."

Early today, Hamas fired a heavy barrage of rockets at the metropolis of Tel Aviv, saying it was revenge for flattening the high-rise building.

Some press freedom advocates said Saturday's strike raised suspicions that Israel was trying to hinder coverage of the conflict. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists demanded Israel "provide a detailed and documented justification" for the strike.

Mostefa Souag, acting director-general of Al-Jazeera Media Network, called the strike a "war crime" aiming to "silence the media and to hide the untold carnage and suffering of the people of Gaza."

Palestinians say Israeli is showing disregard for civilians' safety in the bombardment.

But a senior Israeli air force general, who would only speak if not identified by name, said the process of issuing warnings was evidence that Israel is doing what it can to minimize civilian casualties as it strikes the military assets that Hamas has embedded in crowded neighborhoods.

In the early hours Saturday, another airstrike hit an apartment building in Gaza City's densely populated Shati refugee camp, killing two women and eight children.

Mohammed Hadidi told reporters that his wife and her brother's wife had gathered at the house with their children to celebrate the Eid al-Fitr holiday ending the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. The only survivor was Hadidi's 5-month-old son, Omar.

The Israeli army said it had "attacked a number of Hamas terror organization senior officials in an apartment used as terror infrastructure in the area of the al-Shati refugee camp," but it did not release more information.

A spokesperson for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Lior Haiat, said Israel did everything possible to minimize civilian casualties and that it was Hamas that fired indiscriminately at Israeli civilians.

Hamas and its allies in Gaza returned fire with a barrage of rockets across central Israel in the early afternoon, sending sunbathers sprinting from the beaches of Tel Aviv toward bomb shelters.

Most of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system. But at least one landed in Ramat Gan, a Tel Aviv suburb, killing one person, Israeli media reported. Another rocket fell near an Ikea store south of Tel Aviv but left no injuries.

Palestinian health officials also reported the deaths of two Palestinians by Israeli fire in the West Bank on Saturday.

U.S. STANCE

In his call with Netanyahu, Biden expressed his "strong support" for Israel's campaign but raised concern about civilian casualties and protection of journalists, the White House said.

Netanyahu said in a statement about his call with Biden that Israel "is doing all it can to avoid harming those who are uninvolved."

With his call to Abbas, Biden "underscored his strong commitment to a negotiated two-state solution" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the White House said. He stressed the need for Hamas to cease firing rockets into Israel.

Abbas said he'd urged Biden to intervene to stop the Israeli strikes and said the Palestinians were ready to work with the Middle East Quartet, which is composed of envoys from the European Union, Russia, the U.S. and the United Nations.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin tweeted Saturday that he had spoken again with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz and reaffirmed Israel's right to defend itself and condemned "Hamas' deliberate targeting of Israeli citizens."

U.S. diplomat Hady Amr arrived Friday in Israel as part of Washington's efforts to deescalate the conflict. Israel turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year truce that Hamas rulers had accepted, an Egyptian intelligence official said Friday on condition of anonymity.

Mediators from Egypt, which works closely with Israel on security issues and shares a border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, appeared to be growing alarmed. The intelligence official said Egypt hopes the U.S. intervention could halt the Israeli assault. The U.N. Security Council is set to meet today.

The tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, when Palestinians protested against attempts by settlers to forcibly evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes and against Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, triggering the Israeli assault on Gaza. Since then, Hamas has fired more than 2,000 rockets, though most have either fallen short or been intercepted by anti-missile defenses. Israel's warplanes and artillery have struck hundreds of targets around Gaza, where some 2 million Palestinians live.

The turmoil has spilled over elsewhere, fueling protests in the occupied West Bank and stoking violence within Israel between its Jewish and Arab citizens, with clashes and vigilante attacks on people and property.

Palestinians on Saturday marked the Day of al-Nakba, or "the Catastrophe," commemorating the estimated 700,000 people who were expelled from or fled their homes in what is now Israel during the 1948 war surrounding its creation. Thousands of Arab Israelis marched Saturday at a rally in the northern Israeli city of Sukhnin, and scattered protests took place in the West Bank.

"I think for Palestinians, it's less about commemorating Nakba right now and more about commemorating the ongoing Nakba," said Mariam Barghouti, a Palestinian writer and activist in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Information for this article was contributed by Fares Akram, Lee Keath, Bassem Mroue, Samy Magdy, Alexandra Olson, Jon Gambrell and Zeke Miller of The Associated Press; by Loveday Morris, Miriam Berger, Hazem Balousha, Steve Hendrix and Shira Rubin of The Washington Post; by Patrick Kingsley and Vivian Yee of The New York Times; and by Ros Krasny of Bloomberg News (TNS).

A policeman stands on rubble from a building housing AP office and other media in Gaza City that was destroyed after Israeli warplanes demolished it, Saturday, May 15, 2021.  The airstrike Saturday came roughly an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to evacuate the building. There was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
A policeman stands on rubble from a building housing AP office and other media in Gaza City that was destroyed after Israeli warplanes demolished it, Saturday, May 15, 2021. The airstrike Saturday came roughly an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to evacuate the building. There was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Palestinians gather around a car after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ali)
Palestinians gather around a car after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Mohammed Ali)
Palestinians look at destruction caused by Israeli air strikes that killed ten members of Abu Hatab Hadidi family in Gaza City, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinians look at destruction caused by Israeli air strikes that killed ten members of Abu Hatab Hadidi family in Gaza City, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
The building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media in Gaza City collapses after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike Saturday, May 15, 2021. The attack came roughly an hour after the Israeli military warned people to evacuate the building, which also housed Al-Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments. There was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
The building housing the offices of The Associated Press and other media in Gaza City collapses after it was hit by an Israeli airstrike Saturday, May 15, 2021. The attack came roughly an hour after the Israeli military warned people to evacuate the building, which also housed Al-Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments. There was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in the Gaza Strip, at the Israel-Gaza border, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in the Gaza Strip, at the Israel-Gaza border, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
A view of a 11-story building housing AP office and other media in Gaza City is seen as Israeli warplanes demolished it, Saturday, May 15, 2021. The airstrike Saturday came roughly an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to evacuate the building. There was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted. The building housed The Associated Press, Al-Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
A view of a 11-story building housing AP office and other media in Gaza City is seen as Israeli warplanes demolished it, Saturday, May 15, 2021. The airstrike Saturday came roughly an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to evacuate the building. There was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted. The building housed The Associated Press, Al-Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)
Israeli medics evacuate a woman from a targeted residential neighborhood where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit the area, in Ramat Gan, central Israel, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Israeli medics evacuate a woman from a targeted residential neighborhood where a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip hit the area, in Ramat Gan, central Israel, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Palestinians look at destruction caused by Israeli air strikes that killed ten members of the Abu Hatab Hadidi family in Gaza City, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinians look at destruction caused by Israeli air strikes that killed ten members of the Abu Hatab Hadidi family in Gaza City, Saturday, May 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A ball of fire erupts from a building housing various international media, including The Associated Press, after an Israeli airstrike on Saturday, May 15, 2021 in Gaza City.   The attack came roughly an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to evacuate the building, which also housed Al-Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments. There was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted.  (Mahmud Hams /Pool Photo via AP)
A ball of fire erupts from a building housing various international media, including The Associated Press, after an Israeli airstrike on Saturday, May 15, 2021 in Gaza City. The attack came roughly an hour after the Israeli military ordered people to evacuate the building, which also housed Al-Jazeera and a number of offices and apartments. There was no immediate explanation for why the building was targeted. (Mahmud Hams /Pool Photo via AP)
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