Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tuesday that Israel would step up attacks on Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas as the foes traded heavy fire that killed at least 28 people in an escalation of tensions that were sparked in Jerusalem.
World powers urged calm and Muslim countries voiced outrage amid the worst flare-up of violence in years that saw Hamas rain down rockets on Israel, while the Jewish state launched attacks with fighter jets and attack helicopters.
On the Palestinian side, nine children were among at least 26 people killed in the blockaded Gaza Strip, and 125 people there were reported wounded, many rescued from the smouldering ruins of buildings hit in the crowded enclave.
On the Israeli side, rockets killed two women in Ashkelon, just north of Gaza, a coastal city that Hamas threatened to turn into a "hell", at one stage claiming to have fired more than 100 rockets in under five minutes to overwhelm air defences.
Gaza’s Hamas said it launched 130 rockets towards Israeli city Tel Aviv on Tuesday night, as sirens warning of incoming rocket fire blared in Tel Aviv and central Israel on Tuesday night, Reuters witnesses said.
At least one person was critically wounded by the rockets, according to the Israeli National ambulance service, after at least one rocket directly hit on a building in the city’s suburb of Holon, Israel’s Channel 12 TV reported.
The sounds of multiple explosions were also heard, just minutes after both Hamas and Islamic Jihad vowed to respond to an Israeli air strike on a 12-storey residential tower in the Strip earlier in the night.
"In response to the targeting of residential towers and civilians, your appointment with the resistance's rockets in the skies of Tel Aviv is at 9 p.m.," (7pm GMT), a statement by Islamic Jihad read.
According to Israel’s KAN broadcaster, the country has halted all flights in Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport
Netanyahu warned that the Israel Defence Forces would now intensify their attacks, which the army said have targeted military sites and claimed the lives of at least 17 Hamas and Islamist Jihad commanders.
"Since yesterday, the army has carried out hundreds of attacks against Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza... and we will further intensify the power of our attacks," Netanyahu said in a video released by his office, adding that Hamas "will be hit in ways that it does not expect".
"We deplore the death of two Israeli women and I ask you to respect the security instructions," Netanyahu added, addressing Israelis at the end of a security meeting in southern Israel.
Hamas said it fired 137 rockets in five minutes on Tuesday afternoon at Ashkelon and nearby Ashdod, in simultaneous strikes aimed at thwarting Israel's air defences.
The Israeli army has stepped up air strikes on suspected Hamas and Islamic Jihad positions in Gaza.
"We have eliminated commanders, hit many important targets and we have decided to attack harder and increase the pace of attacks," Netanyahu said.
Hours after, a 12-storey residential building in Gaza was hit by an Israeli air strike on Tuesday night, AFP reporters said. It housed an office that was used by several top Hamas commanders. The building located near the seafront was completely destroyed following the strike, AFP reporters added.
It was not immediately clear if the building had been fully evacuated or if there were casualties.
'You escalate, we escalate'
Tensions that have simmered for weeks flared last Friday when Israeli riot police clashed with large crowds of Palestinians at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, on the last Friday of the Muslim holy fasting month of Ramadan.
Nightly clashes since then at the compound, which is holy to both Muslims and Jews, and elsewhere in east Jerusalem have left at least 700 Palestinians injured.
Hamas had Monday warned Israel to withdraw all its forces from the mosque compound and the Jerusalem district of Sheikh Jarrah, where looming evictions of Palestinian families have fuelled angry protests.
Sirens wailed across Jerusalem just after the Monday 3pm GMT deadline set by Hamas as people in the city, including lawmakers in the Knesset legislature, fled to bunkers for the first time since the 2014 Gaza conflict.
Hamas's Qassam Brigades said, "This is a message that the enemy must understand well: if you respond we will respond, and if you escalate we will escalate."
International calls for calm and ‘utmost restraint’
The international community has voiced growing alarm and had previously called for calm, although the UN Security Council at a meeting failed to pass a resolution.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said "all sides need to de-escalate, reduce tensions, take practical steps to calm things down". He strongly condemned the Hamas rocket attacks, saying they "need to stop immediately".
A French government official said Tuesday that Israeli leaders must show a "proportionate use of force" in response to the rockets fired by the Hamas Islamist movement. "Quite clearly, we call for a proportionate use of force by the Israeli authorities," deputy foreign minister Jean-Baptiste Lemoyne told lawmakers in the French parliament.
France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian added in a statement that "all participants must demonstrate the utmost restraint and avoid all provocations or incitement to hate, in order to end the violence whose primary victims are the Palestinian and Israeli populations".
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights condemned "the use of indiscriminate weapons, such as the rockets being fired into Israel", but also warned that "Israel must respect international humanitarian law" and take precautions to avoid civilian deaths.
Diplomatic sources told AFP that Egypt and Qatar, who have mediated past Israeli-Hamas conflicts, were attempting to calm tensions.
Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit condemned Israel's Gaza strikes as "indiscriminate and irresponsible... and a miserable display of force at the expense of children's blood".
Israeli police 'taking off gloves'
Large protests were held in solidarity with Palestinians in Muslim-majority countries including Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey.
Jerusalem braced for more of the unrest that has seen Palestinians hurl rocks, bottles and fireworks at Israeli officers in riot gear, who have fired rubber bullets, stun grenades and tear gas.
"They shot everyone, young and old people," claimed a Palestinian, Siraj, 24, about Israeli security forces in a confrontation in which he suffered a spleen injury from a rubber bullet.
Human rights group Amnesty International accused Israel of using "abusive and wanton force against largely peaceful Palestinian protesters", describing some of the measures as "disproportionate and unlawful".
The Israeli police did not respond to specific allegations, but told AFP: "We will not allow disturbance of order while harming the fabric of life, inciting to harm police forces and violence against police officers and civilians."
Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai told Israeli N12 TV on Monday that in Jerusalem in recent days "we showed too much restraint. We are at the stage of taking off the gloves".
(FRANCE 24 with AFP & REUTERS)