Israel-Hamas conflict rages as Israeli strike demolishes tower housing media

by Reuters
Saturday, 15 May 2021 19:25 GMT

* Conflict erupted on Monday, still no sign of end

* U.S. and Arab diplomats pushing to restore calm

* Israel strike destroys 12-storey building in Gaza

* Rocket salvoes from Gaza strike Tel Aviv suburb (Adds Biden talking to Abbas, Netanyahu; Haniyeh comments)

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Rami Ayyub

GAZA/JERUSALEM, May 15 (Reuters) - Israel pounded Gaza on Saturday, destroying a tower block that housed news media organisations, while Palestinian rocket salvoes hit Tel Aviv with no sign of an end to almost a week of fighting.

Palestinians say at least 145 people, including 41 children, have been killed in Gaza since the conflict erupted on Monday. Israel has reported 10 dead, including two children.

Israel's military brought down a 12-storey block in Gaza City that housed the U.S. Associated Press and Qatar-based Al Jazeera media operations, as well as other offices and apartments.

Israel gave advance warning of the strike so the building could be evacuated. The Israeli military said later it was a legitimate military target because it contained military assets of Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza.

The strike was condemned by the AP and Al Jazeera. The United States told Israel "that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility," White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said.

U.S. President Joe Biden later spoke to both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to urge calm.

Netanyahu told Biden that Israel was doing everything to avoid harming non-combatants, the Israeli leader's office said, including warnings to civilians to leave buildings that it was about to destroy because they contained militant targets.

The White House said Biden updated Netanyahu on "high-level" contacts with regional partners to restore calm, and raised concerns about the safety of journalists.

Biden also spoke with Abbas, for the first time since the U.S. leader took office in January.

Both sides said Biden reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution to the conflict, and the White House said Biden was committed to "strengthening the U.S.-Palestinian partnership", which reached a nadir under the Trump administration.

FAILED DIPLOMACY

Biden's envoy, Hady Amr, arrived in Israel on Friday, before a meeting on Sunday of the U.N. Security Council.

But diplomacy has so far failed to quell the worst escalation in fighting between Israel and Palestinians since 2014.

Diplomatic efforts are complicated by the fact the United States and most western powers do not talk to Hamas, which they regard as a terrorist organisation. And Abbas, whose power base is in the occupied West Bank, exerts little influence over Hamas in Gaza.

Hamas began its rocket assault on Monday after tensions over a court case to evict several Palestinian families in East Jerusalem, and in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near the city's Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam's third holiest site.

Speaking to crowds of protesters in the Qatari capital of Doha, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said on Saturday the fighting was primarily about Jerusalem.

"The Zionists thought ... they could demolish Al-Aqsa mosque. They thought they could displace our people in Sheikh Jarrah," said Haniyeh. "I say to Netanyahu: do not play with fire."

A Palestinian official familiar with truce talks told Reuters that efforts to restore calm have continued throughout, with Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations all involved.

On Saturday, the Israeli military said around 2,300 rockets had been fired from Gaza since Monday, with about 1,000 intercepted by missile defences and 380 falling into the Gaza Strip.

Israel has launched more than 1,000 air and artillery strikes into the densely populated coastal strip, saying they were aimed at Hamas and other militant targets.

Israel's bombardments have sent columns of smoke above Gaza City and lit up the enclave's night sky.

Akram Farouq, 36, dashed out of his home overnight with his family after a neighbour told him they had received a call from an Israeli officer saying their building would be hit - a familiar pattern for attacks on what Israel deems military sites.

"We haven't slept all night because of the explosions, and now I am out in the street with my wife and children, who are weeping and trembling," Farouq said.

Living conditions for Gaza's two million people are worsening, with households receiving just four hours a day of power instead of the usual 12, Palestinian officials said.

ROCKET SHELTERS

In Tel Aviv, residents fled for cover in reinforced 'safe rooms' as the rockets rained down. One hit a residential block in the Ramat Gan suburb, killing a 50-year old man, medics said.

Israelis have learned to dive for cover at any time of the night and day. In Israel's coastal city of Ashdod, Mark Reidman surveyed damage to his apartment building from a rocket strike.

"We want to live in peace and quiet," the 36-year-old said, adding he had to try to explain to his three young children "what happened, and why this is happening".

In Israel, the conflict has been accompanied by violence among the country's mixed communities of Jews and Arabs. Synagogues have been attacked, Arab-owned shops vandalised and street fights have broken out. Israel's president has warned of civil war.

Hamas said the latest strikes on Tel Aviv were in response to Israel's overnight strikes on Gaza's Beach refugee camp, where a woman and four of her children were killed in their house.

Five others died, medics said. Israel said it targeted an apartment used by Hamas.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Stephen Farrell and Ari Rabinovitch in Israel, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Aidan Lewis in Cairo, Nandita Bose in Washington Writing by Rami Ayyub and Edmund Blair Editing by Frances Kerry and Mark Potter)

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