JERUSALEM – Israel struck the Gaza Strip again Monday and Hamas rockets continued to streak in the other direction as the conflict hurtled into its second week with little sign of relenting, despite increasing diplomatic efforts.
Israeli warplanes launched a large barrage of airstrikes throughout Gaza shortly after midnight, sending balls of fire soaring into the night sky. The three dozen targets included several top Hamas commanders and nearly 10 miles of the militant group’s tunnel network, the Israeli military said.
The attack, carried out by 54 fighter jets, targeted about 35 military targets in the span of some 20 minutes and followed similar strikes a day earlier that killed at least 42 Palestinians, according to the Israeli army and media reports from Gaza.
Israeli jets also destroyed a mattress factory in northern Gaza shortly after dawn in what witnesses said appeared to be an artillery attack. Video circulating on social media showed plumes of black smoke pouring from the facility. Several hours later, Israel killed the commander of Islamic Jihad Forces in northern Gaza, Hasam Abu Harbid, in a targeted strike, the military said.
The Israeli military said some 3,200 rockets had been fired at Israeli territory since the fighting began May 10. Approximately 460 of those launched failed and fell in Gaza itself while almost 90% of the rest are typically picked off by the Iron Dome missile defense system. In the same period, Israeli forces have struck 766 targets in Gaza. Israel said it also thwarted a sea-based attack Monday by a suspected “Hamas submergible naval weapon.”
The attacks came amid ongoing diplomatic efforts to stem the conflict, including the first bipartisan call for a cease-fire from members of the U.S. Congress.
“Israel has the right to defend itself from Hamas’ rocket attacks, in a manner proportionate with the threat its citizens are facing,” wrote Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., on Sunday. “As a result of Hamas’ rocket attacks and Israel’s response, both sides must recognize that too many lives have been lost and must not escalate the conflict further. We are encouraged by reports that the parties are exploring a cease-fire.”
Hamas’ rate of rocket fire has slowed over the two days of pounding Israeli attacks, an Israeli military spokesman said. But he noted significant barrages were launched Monday against the Israeli cities of Beer Sheva, Ashdod and Ashkelon. A senior military officer, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said military officials see no evidence that Hamas is ready to end its attacks. Israel is prepared for a prolonged conflict, the officer said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed dismay at the escalating violence and said the United States was ready to “lend support if the parties . . . seek a cease-fire.”
“Hundreds of people killed or injured including children being pulled from the rubble,” Blinken said to reporters in Denmark. “We’re also alarmed by how journalists and medical personnel have been put at risk.”
Blinken said that Israel has the right to defend itself against the rocket attacks and he called on Hamas and other militant groups in Gaza to stop the launches. He also said that Israel, “as a democracy has an extra burden to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties.”
The Israeli airstrikes came around 1:30 a.m. Monday. Palestinians took to social media to report the thud of explosions and the sight of fireballs rising into the sky.
The operation led to a lull in Hamas rocket fire, which resumed a few hours later, according to Israeli media.
“In the last few hours, fighter jets and aircraft have attacked nine headquarters of the Hamas terrorist organization throughout the Gaza Strip,” the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said in a tweet accompanying a video of an aerial view of the bombing. “The houses that were attacked were used as terrorist infrastructure and in some of the houses, weapons depots were even found.”
The IDF said 54 fighter jets dropped 110 precision munitions during the operation, which marked the third time in recent days the Israeli military has targeted Hamas’s tunnel system, dubbed the “Metro.”
Hours earlier, Hamas had vowed to continue its rocket attacks as revenge for the Israeli strike that killed 42 people, including 10 children, on a main road near Shifa Hospital in Gaza City early Sunday.
The Israeli military said that strike – believed to be the single deadliest attack in eight days of fighting – was meant to destroy the tunnels.
“Apparently what happened was that when the metro system collapsed, the foundation of these buildings was hit in a way that made these buildings collapse,” according to a senior military officer who briefed reporters Monday. “That was very unfortunate and we are very sorry for any loss of life that happened in this incident and we are learning from it and trying to avoid any further damage such as that.”
IDF attacks on Hamas’s tunnel system were not intended to destroy the entire underground network, the officer said, but to collapse crucial junctions the militant group uses to move rockets, soldiers and supplies around Gaza.
Israeli officials also continued to defend the Saturday strike on the multistory building in Gaza City that housed the AP, Al Jazeera and other media outlets. On Sunday, the AP’s executive editor, Sally Buzbee, called for an independent investigation into the airstrike. Buzbee, who will take over as executive editor of The Washington Post next month, said the Israeli government had not provided clear evidence supporting its attack, which leveled the 12-story al-Jalaa tower.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday to say Hamas military intelligence was operating inside the building.
“It’s a perfectly legitimate target,” Netanyahu said, adding that evidence of his claim would be shared through intelligence channels, not aired in public.
The militant operations were on too many floors to allow for a targeted strike, the senior military official said Monday, and so the entire building was targeted after news organizations and other tenants were given an hour to evacuate.
Media groups bear responsibility for sharing space with militant operations, the officer, who spoke on background, added.
“The only thing we’re saying is next time make sure your neighbors are not Hamas,” the officer said. “People know. Do your due diligence. And if you’re not careful, thank God the IDF is taking care of you and giving you warning before we attack a building that we have to attack.”
The streets of mixed Arab-Israeli cities were mostly quiet Sunday evening after violent, sometimes deadly clashes earlier in the week.
Israeli police said Monday they had arrested a suspect in a firebomb attack in the ancient port city of Jaffa late Friday that left a 12-year-boy seriously burned. They described the suspect as a 20-year-old male from Jaffa but declined to release additional details. The attack took place amid clashes between Arab Israelis and right-wing Jewish Israelis.
Palestinians in the West Bank announced a general strike for Monday in protest of the Israeli attacks. Officials said at least 15 have been killed since Friday in the Palestinian territory in clashes with Israeli forces.
Diplomatic efforts to stop the crisis have yet to gain traction.
The U.N. Security Council held its first open meeting on the conflict on Sunday but took no action.
Abdel Fatah el-Sissi, the Egyptian president, urged for the “cessation of all violence and hostilities” as his country opened the border with Gaza on Sunday to allow for the passage of people in need of medical care.
Jordan’s King Abdullah also said his kingdom was involved in “intensive contacts” to halt the fighting, Reuters reported, quoting state media. And the office of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he called on Pope Francis to help end what end Israel’s “massacre” of Palestinians, according to AFP.
The Israeli military would not comment on the status of cease-fire talks. But a senior officer said Monday that its monitors have seen no sign that militants in Gaza were slackening their rocket fire and that Israel was ready for a prolonged conflict.
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The Washington Post’s Shira Rubin and Loveday Morris contributed from Tel Aviv. Miriam Berger contributed from Jerusalem.