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Israel, Hamas Escalate Heavy Fighting  05/12 06:02

   Israel stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, flattening a high-rise 
building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at least three militants 
in their hideouts on Tuesday as Palestinian rockets rained down almost nonstop 
on parts of Israel.

   JERUSALEM (AP) -- Israel stepped up its attacks on the Gaza Strip, 
flattening a high-rise building used by the Hamas militant group and killing at 
least three militants in their hideouts on Tuesday as Palestinian rockets 
rained down almost nonstop on parts of Israel.

   It was the heaviest fighting between the bitter enemies since 2014, and it 
showed no signs of slowing.

   Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to expand the offensive, 
while Gaza militants unleashed a fierce late-night barrage of rockets that set 
off air-raid sirens and explosions throughout the densely populated Tel Aviv 
metropolitan area.

   Just after daybreak Wednesday, Israel unleashed dozens of airstrikes in the 
course of a few minutes, targeting police and security installations, witnesses 
said. A wall of dark gray smoke rose over Gaza City. Iyad al-Bozum, a spokesman 
for the Hamas-run Interior Ministry, said airstrikes destroyed the central 
police headquarters in Gaza City, a compound with several buildings.

   Five Israelis, including three women and a child, were killed by rocket fire 
Tuesday and early Wednesday, and dozens of people wounded. The death toll in 
Gaza rose to 35 Palestinians, including 10 children, according to the Health 
Ministry. Over 200 people were wounded.

   In the West Bank, meanwhile, a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed during 
clashes with Israeli troops that entered al-Fawar refugee camp in southern 
Hebron, the ministry said.

   In another sign of widening unrest, demonstrations erupted in Arab 
communities across Israel, where protesters set dozens of vehicles on fire in 
confrontations with police.

   The fighting between Israel and Hamas was the most intense since a 50-day 
war in the summer of 2014. In just over 24 hours, the current round of 
violence, sparked by religious tensions in the contested city of Jerusalem, 
increasingly resembled that devastating war.

   The booms of Israeli airstrikes and hisses of outgoing rocket fire could be 
heard in Gaza throughout the day, and large plumes of smoke from targeted 
buildings rose into the air. Israel resumed a policy of airstrikes aimed at 
killing wanted militants and began to take down entire buildings -- a tactic 
that drew heavy international criticism in 2014.

   In Israel, the nonstop barrages of rocket fire left long streaks of white 
smoke in their wake, while the explosions of anti-rocket interceptors boomed 
overhead. Air-raid sirens wailed throughout the day, sending panicked residents 
scurrying for cover.

   In a nationally televised address, Netanyahu said that Hamas and the smaller 
Islamic Jihad militant groups "have paid, and I tell you here, will pay a heavy 
price for their aggression."

   He claimed that Israel had killed dozens of militants and inflicted heavy 
damage on hundreds of targets.

   "This campaign will take time," he said. "With determination, unity and 
strength, we will restore security to the citizens of Israel."

   He stood alongside Defense Minister Benny Gantz, a political rival, in a 
show of unity. "There are lots of targets lined up. This is only the 
beginning," Gantz said. The military said it was activating some 5,000 
reservists and sending troop reinforcements to the Gaza border.

   The current violence has coincided with the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, 
a time of heightened religious sentiments.

   Critics say heavy-handed Israeli police measures in and around Jerusalem's 
Old City helped stoke nightly unrest. Another flashpoint has been the east 
Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where dozens of Palestinians are under 
threat of eviction by Jewish settlers.

   Confrontations erupted last weekend at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is 
the third-holiest site in Islam and the holiest site in Judaism. Over four 
days, Israeli police fired tear gas and stun grenades at Palestinians in the 
compound who hurled stones and chairs at the forces. At times, police fired 
stun grenades into the carpeted mosque.

   On Monday evening, Hamas began firing rockets from Gaza. From there on, the 
escalation was rapid.

   In a televised address, Hamas' exiled leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel 
bore responsibility. "It's the Israeli occupation that set Jerusalem on fire, 
and the flames reached Gaza," he said.

   Palestinian health officials gave no breakdown on the death toll in Gaza, 
but Islamic Jihad confirmed that three senior commanders were killed in a 
strike on their hideout in a Gaza City apartment building. The Health Ministry 
said 10 children and a woman were also killed.

   Netanyahu said Israel had attacked hundreds of targets. The fiercest attack 
was a set of airstrikes that brought down an entire 12-story building. The 
building housed important Hamas offices, as well as a gym and some start-up 
businesses. Israel fired a series of warning shots before demolishing the 
building, allowing people to flee and there were no casualties.

   Israeli aircraft heavily damaged another Gaza City building early Wednesday. 
The nine-story structure housed residential apartments, medical companies and a 
dental clinic. A drone fired five warning rockets before the bombing. Israel 
said the building housed Hamas intelligence offices and the group's command 
responsible for planning attacks on Israeli targets in the occupied West Bank.

   Fighter jets struck the building again after journalists and rescuers had 
gathered around. There was no immediate word on casualties. The high-rise stood 
200 meters (650 feet) away from the Associated Press bureau in Gaza City, and 
smoke and debris reached the office.

   Soon after the bombing, Hamas announced that it would resume its attacks and 
aimed 100 rockets at the Israeli desert town of Beer-Sheva. Hamas said the 
renewed barrage was in response to the strike on the building. The latest 
rocket attack early Wednesday killed a man and his seven-year-old daughter in 
the central city of Lod, according to Israel's Kan public radio.

   The Israeli military said hundreds of rockets were launched toward Israel. 
Two women, including an Indian caregiver, were killed in separate rocket 
strikes in the southern city of Ashkelon.

   Then, late at night, Hamas said it unleashed a barrage of 130 rockets toward 
Tel Aviv in response to the destruction of the high-rise. As the rockets rose 
into the skies, mosques across Gaza blared with chants of "God is great," 
"victory to Islam" and "resistance."

   One rocket killed a woman in the city of Rishon LeZion, and another struck a 
bus in the nearby city of Holon, wounding three people, including a young girl.

   The violence was beginning to spill over to Israel's own Arab population.

   In Lod, thousands of mourners joined a funeral for an Arab man killed by a 
suspected Jewish gunman the previous night. The crowd clashed with police, and 
set a synagogue and some 30 vehicles, including a police car, on fire, Israeli 
media reported. Paramedics said a 56-year-old man was seriously hurt after his 
car was pelted with stones.

   The city's mayor, Yair Revivo, described the situation in the mixed 
Jewish-Arab city as "civil war," and the government ordered a deployment of 
paramilitary border guards from the West Bank to Lod.

   In neighboring Ramle, ultra-nationalist Jewish demonstrators were filmed 
attacking cars belonging to Arabs. In the norther port town of Acre, protesters 
torched a Jewish-owned restaurant and hotel. Police arrested dozens of others 
at Arab protests in other towns.

   Diplomats sought to intervene, with Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations 
working to deliver a cease-fire. All three serve as mediators between Israel 
and Hamas.

   The U.N. Security Council planned to hold its second closed emergency 
meeting in three days Wednesday on the escalating violence, an indication of 
growing international concern. Council diplomats, speaking on condition of 
anonymity because discussions have been private, said the U.N.'s most powerful 
body did not issue a statement because of U.S. concerns that it could escalate 

   The escalation comes at a time of political limbo in Israel.

   Netanyahu has been caretaker prime minister since an inconclusive 
parliamentary election in March. After failing to form a coalition government 
by a deadline last week, his political rivals have now been given the 

   The support of an Arab-backed party with Islamist roots is key for the 
anti-Netanyahu bloc. But the current tensions might deter the party's leader, 
Mansour Abbas, from joining a coalition with Jewish parties, at least for the 
time being.

   The sides have three more weeks to reach a deal. If they fail, Israel would 
likely begin an unprecedented fifth election campaign in just over two years.

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