Israel faced an escalating conflict on two fronts Thursday, scrambling to quell riots between Arabs and Jews on its own streets after days of exchanging deadly fire with Palestinian militants in Gaza.
Despite diplomatic efforts to halt the violence, which US President Joe Biden said he hoped would end “sooner than later”, hundreds of rockets tore through the skies over the Gaza Strip overnight.
Israel’s civil aviation authority said it had diverted all incoming passenger flights headed for Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport to Ramon airport in the south, due to the rocket fire.
Air raid warnings went off across Israel, including in the country’s north for the first time in years — which the army later said was a “false alarm”.
Israel’s air force launched multiple strikes, targeting what it described as locations linked to the “counterintelligence infrastructure” of Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, as well as the house of Iyad Tayeb, one of the movement’s commanders.
In Gaza, 67 people have been killed so far — including 17 children — and nearly 400 wounded in days of near relentless Israeli air strikes.
On Wednesday, Hamas announced the death of its military chief in Gaza City, Bassem Issa, with the Israeli military saying it had killed three other senior figures as well.
Israeli strikes also destroyed a tower block housing Palestinian television channel Al-Aqsa, set up by Hamas.
Israel said Palestinian militants had launched around 1,600 rockets into its territory since Monday evening.
Seven people have been killed, including one six-year-old after a rocket struck the family home in southern Israel, the United Hatzalah volunteer rescue service said.
The past few days have seen the most intense hostilities in seven years between Israel and Gaza’s armed groups, triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
Coinciding with the aerial bombardments is surging violence between Arabs and Jews inside Israel.
On Wednesday night, Israeli far-right groups took to the streets across the country, clashing with security forces and Arab Israelis.
Police said they had responded to violent incidents in multiple towns, including Lod, Acre and Haifa, confirming 374 arrests shortly past midnight.
Israeli television aired footage of a far-right mob beating a man they considered an Arab until he lay unconscious on his back in a street in Bat Yam, near Tel Aviv.
“The victim of the lynching is seriously injured but stable,” Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital said, without identifying him.
A state of emergency has been declared in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Lod, where a synagogue and other Jewish property has been torched and an Arab resident was shot dead.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, in unusually strong language, denounced what he described as a “pogrom” in which “an incited and bloodthirsty Arab mob” had injured people and attacked sacred Jewish spaces.
In the occupied West Bank, a Palestinian man was killed during a confrontation with Israeli soldiers near the northern city of Nablus, the Palestinian health ministry said Thursday.
The death brings the number killed in clashes between Palestinians and Israeli forces in the West Bank to three on Wednesday alone.
“What has been happening these last few days in Israeli towns is unacceptable… Nothing justifies the lynching of Arabs by Jews and nothing justifies the lynching of Jews by Arabs,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, adding that Israel was fighting a battle “on two fronts”.
The UN Security Council has already held two closed-door videoconferences since Monday, with the United States — a close Israel ally — opposing adoption of a joint declaration, which it said would not “help de-escalate” the situation.
Netanyahu spoke later Wednesday with Biden, who said: “Israel has a right to defend itself”.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said he had spoken to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, urging an end to the rocket attacks.
Blinken had said earlier that a US envoy would travel to the Middle East to seek to calm tensions.
But the Israeli government has warned that “this is only the beginning”, and military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said strikes on Gaza would continue as Israel prepares for “multiple scenarios”.
“We have ground units that are prepared and are in various stages of preparing ground operations,” he told reporters Thursday.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh has also threatened to step up attacks, warning that “if Israel wants to escalate, we are ready for it”.
The crisis flared last Friday when weeks of tensions boiled over and Israeli riot police clashed with crowds of Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound.
Nightly disturbances have since gripped Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem, leaving more than 900 Palestinians injured, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
The unrest has been driven by anger over the looming evictions of Palestinian families from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.