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Israel launches deadliest attacks so far in Gaza as UN Security Council meets

·8-min read

Israeli air strikes killed at least 42 people on Sunday in the worst daily toll since the start of clashes, Gaza officials said, as UN Security Council members held talks on the escalating conflict amid mounting international pressure to negotiate a ceasefire.

Israeli forces continued to pound the Gaza Strip and Hamas militants fired a barrage of rockets from the Palestinian enclave, a day after Israel's destruction of a tower block that housed news media organisations sparked international outcry.

Palestinian officials say 190 people have been killed over the past week, including 47 children, and another 1,100 have been wounded. Israel has reported 10 dead, including a child and a soldier. At least 560 Israelis have also been wounded.

The Israeli military said the civilian casualties were unintentional. It said its jets attacked a tunnel system used by militants, which collapsed, bringing the homes down.

Israeli air strikes hit the home of Yahya Sinwar, the head of Hamas' political wing in the densely populated enclave, the army said early on Sunday, without saying if he was killed. AFP witnesses confirmed a strike had hit Sinwar's house.

>> The political calculations behind Hamas’s escalating conflict with Israel

Later on Sunday, three convoys carrying 263 wounded Palestinians from Gaza were taken across the Rafah border crossing into Egypt for medical treatment as Israeli strikes continued to pummel the enclave, medical and border sources told AFP.

The same day, a car-ramming attack wounded several people including six police officers in the flashpoint Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, police said, adding that the attacker was shot.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Sunday pleaded for an immediate end to the violence, warning a Security Council meeting that the fighting could plunge the region into an "uncontainable" crisis.

"Fighting must stop. It must stop immediately," Guterres said as he opened a Security Council session delayed by Israel's ally the United States, calling the violence that has killed nearly 200 people over the past week "utterly appalling."

"It has the potential to unleash an uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis and to further foster extremism, not only in the occupied Palestinian territory and Israel, but in the region as a whole," he said.

Earlier, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that an end to seven days of hostilities with Gaza militants was not imminent, despite the diplomatic moves to restore calm.

"Our campaign against the terrorist organisations is continuing with full force," Netanyahu said in a televised speech. "We are acting now, for as long as necessary, to restore calm and quiet to you, Israel's citizens. It will take time."

International pressure

The Security Council talks, delayed by Israel's ally the United States, came as Netanyahu's government faced mounting international pressure to negotiate a ceasefire.

Germany, which has previously stressed Israel's right to defend itself, called for an end to the violence on Sunday, urging both sides to resume talks.

"What is needed now is: 1. an end to the rocket attacks, 2. an end to the violence and 3. a return to talks between Israelis & Palestinians and on a two-state solution," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wrote in a tweet, calling the situation "highly explosive".

During a meeting of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), Saudi Arabia condemned Israel’s "flagrant violations" of Palestinian rights and called for global action to end military operations.

OIC members Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, which recently reestablished diplomatic relations with Israel, both called for a ceasefire and stressed the importance of preserving the sanctity of Jerusalem, which contains sites sacred to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

"De-escalation and the highest degree of restraint are important to avoid dragging the region to new levels of instability," said UAE Minister of State for International Cooperation Reem al-Hashimy.

>> Arab countries allied with Israel ‘hostages of the conflict and its upheavals’

Pope Francis also appealed for an end to the fighting during his weekly address in Saint Peter's Square, lamenting the "unacceptable" death of children.

Washington, which blocked Security Council talks on Friday, has been criticised for not doing enough to stem the bloodshed.

US envoy Hady Amr was to hold talks Sunday with Israeli leaders before meeting Palestinian officials to seek a "sustainable calm", the State Department said.

US President Joe Biden again underscored Israel's right to defend itself in a phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden also expressed his "grave concern" over the violence as well as for the safety of journalists.

In a televised statement late Saturday, Netanyahu thanked Biden for "unequivocal support". Netanyahu told the US that Israel did its utmost to safeguard civilians in its Gaza bombing campaign. "The proof is that towers containing terror sites are cleared of uninvolved people prior to being attacked," he said.

AP 'shocked and horrified' by strike on media offices

On Saturday, another strike on Gaza killed 10 members of an extended family. The children "didn't carry weapons, they didn't fire rockets", said Mohammad al-Hadidi, one of the grieving fathers.

Al-Hadidi said he had lost most of his family in Saturday's strike on a three-storey building in the Shati refugee camp that killed 10 relatives – two mothers and their four children each. Israel's army claimed the building was used by senior Hamas officials.

"They are striking our children – children – without prior warning," said the devastated father, whose five-month-old baby was also wounded in the explosion.

Palestinian militants responded with volleys of rockets into Israel, killing a man on the outskirts of the commercial capital Tel Aviv, police and medics said.

Israeli air strikes also brought down a 12-storey block in Gaza City which housed the US Associated Press and Qatar-based Al Jazeera media operations.

The Israel military said it was a legitimate military target, containing Hamas military offices, and that it had given warnings to civilians to get out of the building before the attack.

"Here's the intelligence we had," Netanyahu told CBS News on Sunday. "An intelligence office for the Palestinian terrorist organisation [was] housed in that building that plots and organises the terror attacks against Israeli civilians."

"So it is a perfectly legitimate target. I can tell you that we took every precaution to make sure that there were no civilian injuries, in fact, no deaths," Netanyahu said.

The strike was condemned by Al Jazeera and the AP. "AP's bureau has been in this building for 15 years. We have had no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building," the news organisation said. "We would never knowingly put our journalists at risk." AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said he was "shocked and horrified" by the attack.

"It is clear that those who are waging this war do not only want to spread destruction and death in Gaza, but also to silence media that are witnessing, documenting and reporting the truth," Al Jazeera's Jerusalem bureau chief, Walid al-Omari, told AFP.

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.

Al-Aqsa clashes

Hamas began its rocket assault on Monday after weeks of 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, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

>> Itamar Ben Gvir, the ultra-nationalist accused of stirring up violence in Jerusalem

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," he continued, amid cheers from the crowd. "The title of this battle today, the title of the war, and the title of the intifada, is Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem," using the Arabic word for 'uprising'.

Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant groups have fired around 3,000 rockets from Gaza since Monday, the Israeli military said on Sunday. It said around half were intercepted by missile defences and hundreds more fell 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.

Earlier this week the International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, told Reuters the court was "monitoring very closely" the latest escalation of hostilities, amid an investigation now under way into alleged war crimes in earlier bouts of the conflict.

Netanyahu has accused Hamas of "committing a double war crime" by targeting civilians, and using Palestinian civilians as "human shields."

The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said on Saturday it had "serious concerns that the Israel air strikes attacks caused disproportionate destruction of civilian property" in Gaza.

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.

There has also been an upsurge in deadly clashes in the occupied West Bank.

An Israeli soldier shot at a Palestinian motorist who tried to run over soldiers at a military checkpoint late on Saturday, the military said. Palestinian health officials said the motorist had been killed. On Friday, 11 Palestinians were killed by Israeli troops, Palestinian medics said.

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS & AFP)

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