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Israel targets militants, Gaza tunnels, ceasefire effort in high gear

Israel's military said on Monday it had targeted militant commanders and the tunnel network in the Gaza Strip, while Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets towards Israel despite international scrambling to de-escalate the situation.

Tel Aviv/Gaza City, 18 May 2021 (dpa/MIA) – Israel’s military said on Monday it had targeted militant commanders and the tunnel network in the Gaza Strip, while Palestinian militants continued to fire rockets towards Israel despite international scrambling to de-escalate the situation.

The Israel Defence Forces (IDF) also said late on Monday that its jets “struck the main operations center of the Hamas internal security forces in northern Gaza.”

The army said that the operations center was a central part of Hamas’ “terror infrastructure,” adding that it provided “advance warning to those inside & allowed sufficient time to evacuate.”

Despite calls for a ceasefire from around the world, the conflict between Israel and the Islamist Hamas movement – the ruling authority in Gaza – is entering its second week with no sign of letting up.

Israel’s army said it had shelled the homes of nine senior Hamas commanders on Sunday night. Hasem Abu Harbid, who apparently led an Islamic Jihad unit in northern Gaza, was killed in a separate attack, Israel said.

More than 1,500 targets have been attacked in Gaza, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday, adding that the operation would continue at “full force.”

On Sunday night, 54 fighter jets were deployed to attack the underground tunnel network in Gaza, the army said. Some 15 kilometres of tunnels were destroyed.

The Palestinian side said the airstrikes were the heaviest yet in densely populated Gaza.

The rocket fire from Gaza has been equally intense.

Some 3,150 rockets have been fired at Israel since May 10, according to the Israeli military. About 460 of the rockets never made it across the border and went down in Gaza territory, the military said.

The Iron Dome missile defence system had an interception rate of about 90 per cent, it said.

By comparison, a total of 4,481 rockets were fired at Israel during the entire 51-day Gaza war in 2014.

At least 192 people have been killed in Gaza, including 58 children, according to the coastal territory’s Health Ministry.

In Israel, rocket fire has killed 10 people since May 10, according to rescuers.

Israel blames Hamas for any attacks from Gaza. The group is classified as a terrorist organization by Israel, the US and the EU.

International diplomatic efforts to calm tensions have had little apparent effect so far.

On Monday evening, US President Joe Biden “expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed U.S. engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end” in a phone call with Netanyahu, according to the White House.

Earlier, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the US government was working behind the scenes to ensure an end to the conflict, noting Biden also spoke with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Both Blinken and Biden underscored Israel’s “right to defend itself.”

“There is no equivalence between a terrorist group indiscriminately firing rockets at civilians and a country defending its people from those attacks,” Blinken said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel took a similar line in a phone call with Netanyahu, pledging support for Israel’s right to defend itself.

French President Emmanuel Macron threw his support behind Egypt’s efforts to mediate in the conflict, following a meeting with his Egyptian counterpart, Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, according to sources in France.

Europe needs to decide what kind of role it wants to play in the conflict, said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, adding there are very different attitudes within the EU with regard to the conflict.

Maas said EU foreign ministers plan to meet on Tuesday to discuss the issue.

In an unusual intervention, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told Pope Francis that Palestinians will “continue to be massacred,” if the international community does not sanction Israel.

The pope’s messages about and reactions to this issue “are of great importance in terms of mobilizing the Christian world and the international community,” Erdogan said in a phone call with Francis.

Francis also hosted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the Vatican on Monday, though the pope’s press office did not disclose details about the conversation.

Iran had over the weekend assured Hamas of its support in the fight against its arch-enemy, Israel. Tehran supports anti-Israel groups in the region but has kept a relatively low profile in this flare-up.

Late on Monday the IDF said that six rockets were fired from the neighbouring country toward northern Israel, “all of which fell inside Lebanon.” The Israeli army added that it responded by firing “toward the sources of the launches.”

A Lebanese security source said that Israel targeted Kfar Shouba, a southern Lebanese village not far from the disputed Sheeba Farms/Har Dov area on the easternmost part of the Israel-Lebanon border, with at least four shells. He added Lebanon was checking reports that rockets were fired towards northern Israel.

The United Nations Interim Forces in Southern Lebanon (UNIFIL), which monitor the situation on the border, said they “detected firing of rockets” from the area north of Kfar Shouba at around 11:30 pm (0330 GMT Tuesday). It said the IDF returned fire to the area and that it has now stopped.

Earlier in Lebanon hundreds of members from the pro-Iranian Hezbollah movement and Palestinian supporters gathered in Beirut’s southern suburbs in solidarity with the people in the Gaza Strip.

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