By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel pummeled Gaza with artillery fire and air strikes on Friday as it targeted Palestinian militant tunnels to try to stop persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.
The 40-minute, pre-dawn offensive killed 13 Palestinians, including a mother and her three children whose bodies were pulled from the rubble of their home, health officials in Gaza said.
The Israeli operation included 160 aircraft as well as tanks and artillery firing from outside the Gaza Strip, Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.
Palestinian rocket barrages against southern Israel swiftly followed on the fifth day of the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since 2014.
Egypt was leading international efforts to secure a ceasefire and ensure the conflict does not spread. Security sources said neither side appeared amenable so far but a Palestinian official said negotiations intensified on Friday.
French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, urging a return to peace in the region.
Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, launched the rocket attacks on Monday, in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, in East Jerusalem.
Violence has since spread to cities where Jews and Israel’s minority Arab community live side by side. There have also been clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where health officials said seven Palestinians were killed on Friday.
At least 122 people have been killed since Monday in Gaza, including 31 children and 20 women, and 900 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said.
Among eight dead in Israel were a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, six Israeli civilians – including two children, an elderly woman and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.
SYSTEM OF TUNNELS
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were reports of more than 200 housing units destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza and hundreds of people seeking shelter in schools in the north of the coastal enclave.
Israel says it makes every effort to preserve civilian life, including warning in advance of attacks.
“What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover,” Conricus told foreign reporters, adding that the network was known as “the Metro”.
Israeli warplanes bombed the houses of three senior Hamas military commanders in central Gaza on Friday that had already been evacuated, local residents said.
An Israeli plane also bombed the building that housed the National Production Bank in Gaza City, with bricks and debris sent flying and windows shattered in some nearby buildings, witnesses said.
Dozens of mourners took part in the funeral of six people – members of two families whose houses were hit by Israeli air strikes on Thursday – in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.
Holding the cloth-bound body of his 19-month-old nephew in his arms, Khamees al-Rantissi said their house was bombed without prior warning. “What was this child doing? What threat did he pose for the state of Israel?” Rantissi asked.
Netanyahu said on Thursday the campaign “will take more time”. Israeli officials said Hamas must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any ceasefire.
The Israeli military’s build-up of forces on the Gaza border has raised speculation about a possible repeat of ground invasions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2009, but Israel is loath to risk a sharp increase in military casualties.
FLURRY OF DIPLOMACY
Egypt was pushing for both sides to cease fire from midnight on Friday pending further negotiations, two Egyptian security sources said, with Cairo leaning on Hamas and others, including the United States, trying to reach an agreement with Israel.
“The talks have taken a real and serious path on Friday,” a Palestinian official said. “The mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are stepping up their contacts with all sides in a bid to restore calm, but a deal hasn’t yet been reached.”
The hostilities have fueled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority. Violence continued in mixed communities overnight after street fighting and tit-for-tat attacks that prompted Israel’s president to warn of civil war.
Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, who led Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque, decried the treatment of the mosque by Israeli forces. He said its “sanctity has been violated several times during the holy month of Ramadan” in what he called violations “unprecedented” since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
Israel’s military said a Palestinian tried to stab a soldier near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The soldier shot the attacker. Palestinian health officials said the man was killed.
Major airlines have suspended flights to Israel and at least two owners of tankers delivering crude oil asked to divert from Ashkelon to the port of Haifa, farther north of Gaza, because of the conflict, shipping sources said on Friday.
There were pro-Palestinian protests in Jordan and Lebanon, on the borders of the West Bank and Israel, and in Bangladesh, where thousands marched from Dhaka’s national mosque.
But the broader picture across the Middle East and the Islamic world, where Muslims are marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday and where restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 are in place in some countries, was noticeably muted.
The U.N. Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said after the United States had objected to a meeting on Friday.
The Israeli military has put the number of militants killed in Israeli attacks at between 80 and 90. It said that so far, some 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 430 fell short in Gaza or malfunctioned.
(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch in Israel; Aidan Lewis in Cairo, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)