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Palestinians unite in protest

Strike called as Israel pressured to end fight with Hamas by Compiled Democrat-Gazette Staff From Wire Reports | May 19, 2021 at 6:58 a.m.
An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in Gaza Strip, at the Israeli Gaza border, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip -- Palestinians across Israel and the occupied territories went on strike in a rare collective protest Tuesday as Israeli missiles toppled a building in Gaza and as militants in the Hamas-ruled territory fired dozens of rockets that killed two people.

Despite the demonstrations and ongoing violence, the push for a cease-fire appeared to be gaining more traction.

U.S. officials said the Biden administration was privately encouraging Israel to wind down its bombardment of Gaza. Egyptian negotiators also were working to halt the fighting, and while they have not made progress with Israel, they were optimistic that international pressure would force it to the table, according to an Egyptian diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing diplomatic efforts.

Although the general strike was peaceful in many places, with shops in Jerusalem's usually bustling Old City markets shuttered, violence broke out in cities in the West Bank.

Hundreds of Palestinians burned tires in Ramallah and hurled stones at an Israeli military checkpoint. Troops fired tear gas, and protesters picked up some of the canisters and threw them back. Three protesters were killed and more than 140 wounded in clashes with Israeli troops in Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron and other cities, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. The Israeli army said two soldiers were wounded by gunshots that struck their legs.

The general strike was an uncommon show of unity by Palestinians who are citizens of Israel, making up 20% of its population, and those in the territories Israel seized in 1967 that the Palestinians have long sought for a future state.

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The strike was intended to protest the war and Israeli policies that many activists and some rights groups say constitute an overarching system of apartheid that denies Palestinians the rights afforded to Jews. Israel rejects that characterization, saying its citizens have equal rights. It blames the war on Hamas, the Islamic militant group that controls Gaza, and accuses it of inciting violence.

Leaders of the Palestinian community in Israel called the strike, which was embraced by the internationally backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, where ministries and schools were closed. Most businesses appeared to be observing the strike.

Strike organizer Muhammad Barakeh said Palestinians are standing against Israeli "aggression" in Gaza and Jerusalem, as well as "brutal repression" by police.

The war has led to an unusual outbreak of violence in Israel, with groups of Jewish and Palestinian citizens fighting in the streets and torching vehicles and buildings. In both Israel and the West Bank, Palestinian protesters have clashed with Israeli forces.

The fighting began May 10 when Hamas fired long-range rockets toward Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests against Israel's heavy-handed policing of the compound at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a flash-point site sacred to Jews and Muslims, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.

At least 217 Palestinians have been killed in airstrikes, including 63 children, with more than 1,500 people wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not break the numbers down into fighters and civilians. Hamas and Islamic Jihad, another militant group, say that at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is at least 130.

Twelve people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy, have been killed in rocket attacks.

Gallery: Israel-Gaza conflict

EXCHANGING FIRE

A Tuesday rocket attack from Gaza hit a packaging plant in a region bordering the territory, killing two Thai workers. Israel's Magen David Adom rescue service said it took another seven people to the hospital. Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Tanee Sangrat said the wounded also were Thai.

The Israeli military said rockets also were fired at the Erez pedestrian crossing and at the Kerem Shalom crossing, where humanitarian aid was being taken into Gaza, forcing both to close. It said a soldier was slightly wounded at Erez.

Israeli airstrikes into Gaza demolished a six-story building housing bookstores and educational centers and used by the Islamic University and other colleges. Desks, office chairs, books and wires could be seen in the debris. Israel warned its occupants beforehand, sending them fleeing before dawn. There were no reports of casualties.

The Israeli military has set off hundreds of airstrikes that it says are targeting Hamas' militant infrastructure, while Palestinian militants have fired more than 3,400 rockets from civilian areas in Gaza at civilian targets in Israel.

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said the military was focusing on destroying the tunnels where Hamas fighters hide, move between locations and resupply launchers with rockets to fire at Israel.

The tunnels run under civilian neighborhoods, and Israeli airstrikes have been trying to target roads above them to minimize damage to buildings, Conricus said. One weekend airstrike, which Israel said targeted a tunnel, caused several buildings to collapse and killed 42 people in the deadliest single attack of the conflict.

The attacks on the tunnels continue, "and the assessment is that that effort will be expanded to areas that we so far have not conducted this effort in, and that is to be expected over the coming days," he said.

Gen. Hidai Zilberman, a military spokesman who spoke to the Israeli network Army Radio, said there was no plan to suspend operations.

"We have a bank of targets that is full, and we want to continue and to create pressure on Hamas," he said. "This morning, the chief of staff gave us the plans for the next 24 hours, the targets. We will hit anyone who belongs to Hamas, from the first to the last."

Hamas said it would not stop its assault, accusing "the criminal Zionist enemy" of "bombing of homes and residential apartments."

"We warn the enemy that if it did not stop that immediately, we would resume rocketing Tel Aviv," said the militant group's spokesman, Abu Ubaida, according to Reuters.

Medical supplies, fuel and water are running low in Gaza, which is home to more than 2 million Palestinians and has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. Nearly 47,000 Palestinians have fled their homes.

Israeli attacks have damaged at least 18 hospitals and clinics and destroyed one health facility, the World Health Organization said. Nearly half of all essential drugs in the territory have run out.

The WHO said the bombing of key roads, including those leading to the main Shifa Hospital, has hindered ambulances and supply vehicles in Gaza, which was already struggling to cope with a coronavirus outbreak.

Among the buildings leveled by Israeli airstrikes was one housing The Associated Press' Gaza office and those of other media outlets.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alleged that Hamas military intelligence was operating in the building. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday in Iceland that Israel had given the U.S. information about the bombing. Blinken declined to characterize the material, and Israel has not publicly provided evidence of its claim.

U.S. DIPLOMACY

President Joe Biden and administration officials have encouraged Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials to wind down the bombardment of Gaza, a person with knowledge of the discussions said Tuesday, as the Israeli and Palestinian death tolls mounted and pressure grew on Biden to move more forcefully to stop the fighting.

Top Biden administration officials underscored to the Israelis on Monday and Tuesday that time is not on their side in terms of international objections to nine days of Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rockets, and that it is in their interest to wind down the operations soon, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment publicly on the private talks and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The Palestinian ambassador to the United Nations on Tuesday challenged the Biden administration to show any results from what it is calling its quiet diplomacy to stop the Israeli-Hamas conflict. Ambassador Riyad Mansour pointed to the U.S. repeatedly blocking a U.N. Security Council action on the conflict, and he urged the Biden administration to do more.

"If the Biden administration can exert all of their pressure to bring an end to the aggression against our people, nobody is going to stand in their way," Mansour said.

The White House has so far resisted the calls for ramping up public pressure on Netanyahu.

The effort to press Israel, a key U.S. ally, to find an endgame to the military campaign in Gaza came amid a split this week among House Democrats on whether to step up pressure for a cease-fire and call for more forceful U.S. diplomacy.

Democrats on the House Foreign Affairs Committee weighed -- but on Tuesday shelved -- an idea of writing Biden to demand that he delay a pending $735 million sale of precision-guided missiles to Israel.

Dozens of progressive and mainstream Democratic lawmakers already have called for a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza's Hamas militants, and some Democrats are demanding that Biden push harder for an end to the fighting.

Committee Chairman Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., said the lawmakers expect an administration briefing today on the crisis. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., on Tuesday acknowledged the difference between a growing number of progressive Democrats and the Biden administration on the U.S. approach to the conflict, but he played it down.

"Every Democrat, and I think every Republican, wants to minimize the exposure of both sides in Gaza and in Israel," Hoyer told reporters. "There's a difference about how that can be done."

Administration officials are defending Biden's decision to avoid ratcheting up public pressure on Israel for its role in the fighting. The U.S. this week scrapped a proposed U.N. Security Council statement that would have expressed concern for civilian deaths and raised the issue of a cease-fire.

"The president has been doing this long enough ... to know sometimes diplomacy has to happen behind the scenes," White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday.

She spoke as Biden headed to a Ford electric-vehicle site in Dearborn, Mich., to promote his green infrastructure plan, which has been overshadowed by the escalating violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

In a speech at the plant, Biden made only passing mention of the conflict, warmly addressing Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., as she sat in the audience and saying he would pray that her grandmother and other family members were well in the West Bank.

There were protests outside in Dearborn, which is 47% Arab American, most of them Muslim, the highest percentage among cities in the U.S. Outside the local Police Department, about 3 miles from where Biden spoke, hundreds of people of Arab descent chanted, "Free, Free Palestine!" and waved Palestinian flags. Amer Zahr, leader of a group called New Generation for Palestine, said Biden is "not welcome in Dearborn today."

Information for this article was contributed by Fares Akram, Ravi Nessman, Joseph Krauss, Josef Federman, Isabel DeBre, Grant Peck, Ilan Ben Zion, Ellen Knickmeyer, Aamer Madhano, Lisa Mascaro, Matthew Lee, Edith Lederer, Jonathan Lemire, Darlene Superville, Josh Boak, Tom Krisher and Mike Householder of The Associated Press; by Marc Santora and Iyad Abuheweila of The New York Times; and by Amy Teibel and Fadwa Hodali of Bloomberg News (TNS).

Palestinians clash with Israeli forces at the Hawara checkpoint, south of the West Bank city of Nablus, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Palestinians clash with Israeli forces at the Hawara checkpoint, south of the West Bank city of Nablus, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian man sits in front of closed shops during a general strike, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Palestinian leaders are calling for a general strike in Gaza, the West Bank and within Israel to protest against Israel's air strikes on Gaza and the violent confrontations between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
A Palestinian man sits in front of closed shops during a general strike, in the West Bank city of Nablus, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Palestinian leaders are calling for a general strike in Gaza, the West Bank and within Israel to protest against Israel's air strikes on Gaza and the violent confrontations between Israeli security forces and Palestinians in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)
Israeli Kassadra Bodari, left, and Lilian Feciouru take shelter in Ashdod, Israel during sirens warning of incoming rockets fired from Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)
Israeli Kassadra Bodari, left, and Lilian Feciouru take shelter in Ashdod, Israel during sirens warning of incoming rockets fired from Gaza Strip, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Heidi Levine)
People in Ashdod, Israel take shelter in the stairwell of their apartment building during a siren warning of rockets fired from Gaza to Israel on May 18, 2021.(AP Photo/Heidi Levine)
People in Ashdod, Israel take shelter in the stairwell of their apartment building during a siren warning of rockets fired from Gaza to Israel on May 18, 2021.(AP Photo/Heidi Levine)
Israeli police and Palestinian protesters clash in Jerusalem's Old City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Israeli police and Palestinian protesters clash in Jerusalem's Old City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
A Palestinian man looks at his damaged bedroom following early morning Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes on what it said were militant targets in Gaza, leveling a six-story building in downtown Gaza City, and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel early Tuesday, the latest in the fourth war between the two sides, now in its second week. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A Palestinian man looks at his damaged bedroom following early morning Israeli airstrikes on Gaza City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes on what it said were militant targets in Gaza, leveling a six-story building in downtown Gaza City, and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel early Tuesday, the latest in the fourth war between the two sides, now in its second week. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A top view shows the remains of a six-story building which was destroyed by an early morning Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes on what it said were militant targets in Gaza, leveling a six-story building in downtown Gaza City, and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel early Tuesday, the latest in the fourth war between the two sides, now in its second week. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A top view shows the remains of a six-story building which was destroyed by an early morning Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes on what it said were militant targets in Gaza, leveling a six-story building in downtown Gaza City, and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel early Tuesday, the latest in the fourth war between the two sides, now in its second week. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in Gaza Strip, at the Israeli Gaza border, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in Gaza Strip, at the Israeli Gaza border, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)
A Palestinian man inspects the damage of a house destroyed by an early morning Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes on what it said were militant targets in Gaza, leveling a six-story building in downtown Gaza City, and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel early Tuesday, the latest in the fourth war between the two sides, now in its second week. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
A Palestinian man inspects the damage of a house destroyed by an early morning Israeli airstrike, in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 18, 2021. Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes on what it said were militant targets in Gaza, leveling a six-story building in downtown Gaza City, and Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israel early Tuesday, the latest in the fourth war between the two sides, now in its second week. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
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