Death toll mounts as Israel-Gaza violence escalates

There have been more casualties in Gaza and Israel, as a heavy exchange of fire between Palestinian militants and the Israeli military continues.

Militants have fired more than 300 rockets towards Israel since Monday night, killing two Israelis.

Israel says it has hit 150 targets in Gaza in response. Health officials say 28 Palestinians have been killed.

The international community has urged both sides to end the escalation, which follows days of unrest in Jerusalem.

The militant group Hamas, which controls Gaza, said it was acting to defend Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque from Israeli “aggression and terrorism” after the site, which is holy to Muslims and Jews, saw clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians on Monday that left hundreds injured.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas had “crossed a red line” by firing rockets towards Jerusalem for the first time in years.

After a meeting military chiefs on Tuesday afternoon, Mr Netanyahu warned that they had agreed to increase both the strength and the frequency of the Gaza strikes, adding that Hamas “will be hit in ways that it does not expect”.

The past few days have seen the worst violence in Jerusalem since 2017.

It followed mounting Palestinian anger over the threatened eviction of families from their homes in occupied East Jerusalem by Jewish settlers, fuelled by a month of altercations between protesters and police in the predominantly Arab part of the city.

What’s the latest on the ground?

The violence did not abate overnight and the sounds of Palestinian rocket fire and Israeli air strikes continued to echo across the region on Tuesday.

At dawn, rockets hit two homes in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. Israeli medics said a 40-year-old man suffered serious injuries. His wife and two children were also hurt.

On Tuesday afternoon, medics said two women were killed in another rocket attack on Ashkelon.

One other person was seriously injured and five more suffered light injuries, they added, bringing the total receiving treatment in hospital to 84.

Hamas said it had fired 137 rockets at the city and nearby Ashdod in only five minutes, and warned that it had “many surprises” prepared if the fighting continued.

Before that latest barrage, the Israeli military said more than 300 rockets had been fired by militants since 18:00 (15:00 GMT) on Monday, and that 90% of them had been intercepted by its Iron Dome missile defence system.

The Israeli military said it had struck 130 “terror targets” in Gaza overnight in response, including two attack tunnels being dug under the border with Israel, a Hamas intelligence facility, and weapons manufacturing and storage sites.

Later, the military and the Shin Bet security agency announced that they had also killed the head of Islamic Jihad group’s special rocket unit, Samah Abed al-Mamlouk. Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of Mamlouk and two other senior figures.

“We intend to continue to hit Hamas and all of their military components because of their blatant aggression against Israel,” Israeli military spokesman Lt Col Jonathan Conricus told the BBC.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza reported that at least 28 Palestinians, including 10 children, had been killed in Israeli strikes and more than 150 others had been injured.

It said a 59-year-old woman and her disabled son had died in an attack on Tuesday morning.

On Monday night, seven members of one family, including three children, died in an explosion in Beit Hanoun. The cause of the blast was not clear.

The Israeli military said at least 16 of those killed had been members of militant groups and that it took precautions to minimise possible harm to civilians.

“We do whatever we can in order to use the most precise munitions against militants and militants only. But the situation is almost impossible on the ground. Hamas and other terrorist organisations are embedding themselves within the civilian population,” Lt Col Conricus said.

He also said that about one in three of the rockets fired by militants landed inside Gaza, potentially causing damage and civilian casualties inside the territory.

What’s the global reaction?

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Hamas must end the rocket attacks “immediately”, adding: “All sides need to de-escalate.”

UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab tweeted that the violence in Jerusalem and Gaza “must stop” and called for “an immediate de-escalation on all sides, and end to targeting of civilian populations”.

A spokesman for the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said the upsurge in violence “needs to stop immediately” and warned that rocket-fire targeting Israeli civilians “is totally unacceptable and feeds escalatory dynamics”.

The UN human rights office said it was “deeply concerned” by the escalation and condemned “all incitement to violence and ethnic division and provocations”.

A Palestinian official told Reuters news agency that the UN, Egypt and Qatar were trying to negotiate an end to the fighting.

What has caused the violence?

The fighting between Israel and Hamas was triggered by days of escalating clashes between Palestinians and Israeli police at a holy hilltop compound in East Jerusalem.

The site is revered by both Muslims, who call it the Haram al-Sharif (Noble Sanctuary), and Jews, for whom it is known as the Temple Mount. Hamas demanded Israel remove police from there and the nearby predominantly Arab district of Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families face eviction by Jewish settlers. Hamas launched rockets when its ultimatum went unheeded.

Palestinian anger had already been stoked by weeks of rising tension in East Jerusalem, inflamed by a series of confrontations with police since the start of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan in mid-April.

It was further fuelled by an expected court ruling on the fate of the families in Sheikh Jarrah – ultimately postponed because of the unrest – and Israel’s annual celebration on Monday of its capture of East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war, known as Jerusalem Day.

The fate of the city, with its deep religious and national significance to both sides, lies at the heart of the decades-old Israel-Palestinian conflict. Israel in effect annexed East Jerusalem in 1980 and considers the entire city its capital, though this is not recognised by the vast majority of other countries.

Palestinians claim the eastern half of Jerusalem as the capital of a hoped-for state of their own.