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May 17, 2021

Israel conducted dozens of air strikes on the Gaza Strip on Monday, after Palestinian militants fired barrages of rockets at southern Israeli cities.

The pre-dawn raids on Gaza were some of the heaviest seen since the fighting began a week ago.

Israel said it hit facilities belonging to the militant group Hamas and several commanders' homes, but main roads and power lines were also damaged.

Meanwhile, international calls for a ceasefire continue to mount.

The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on Sunday, and Secretary-General António Guterres warned that further fighting had "the potential to unleash an uncontainable security and humanitarian crisis".

He pleaded for an immediate end to the "utterly appalling" violence.

But there were no signs of that happening as the conflict entered its second week.

It began after weeks of spiralling Israeli-Palestinian tension in occupied East Jerusalem that culminated in clashes at a holy site revered by both Muslims and Jews. Hamas, which controls Gaza, began firing rockets after warning Israel to withdraw from the site, triggering retaliatory air strikes.

The Israeli military said more than 50 warplanes conducted a 20-minute attack on the Gaza Strip shortly before dawn on Monday.

They struck 35 "terror targets" and destroyed more than 15km (9.3 miles) of an underground tunnel network belonging to Hamas, it added.

The military also said it had hit the homes of nine "high-ranking" Hamas commanders.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, but Palestinian officials in Gaza said the strikes had caused widespread power cuts and damaged hundreds of homes and other buildings.

"There have never been strikes of this magnitude," one resident told the AFP news agency. Mad Abed Rabbo, 39, said he had felt "horror and fear" during the strikes.

The overall death toll in Gaza now stands at 197 people, including 58 children and 34 women, with 1,230 injured, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. Israel says dozens of militants are among the dead.

 
 

Is Israel's military operation in Gaza, dubbed "Guardian of the Walls", nearing its conclusion?

Not obviously. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the attacks are continuing with "full force" and will "take time".

In a news conference on Sunday, he admitted there were "pressures" but thanked US President Joe Biden, in particular, for his support.

Mr Biden's envoy, Hady Amr, has been in Israel since Friday, discussing the crisis with Israeli officials.

Since the US, like Israel and many other countries, regards Hamas as a terrorist organisation, Mr Amr will not be meeting one of the two warring parties.

Any messages for Hamas will have to go through traditional interlocutors, such as Egypt or Qatar.

Local reports suggest Hamas has been offering some kind of ceasefire for several days, only to be rebuffed by Israel, which clearly wants to inflict as much damage as it can on the militants before the fighting is finally brought to a close.

These episodes follow a familiar pattern: Israel presses home its undoubted military advantage until the international outcry over civilian casualties, and a deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza, demand that the operation end.

In Israel's estimation, we have not reached that point yet.

The Israeli strikes followed Palestinian rocket attacks targeting the southern Israeli cities of Beersheba and Ashkelon just after midnight on Monday.

Ten people, including two children, have been killed in rocket attacks on Israel in the past week.

Israeli officials say they have seen the highest ever concentration of rocket attacks in that time, with more than 3,000 rockets launched in total.

The country's Iron Dome defence system is said to have intercepted 90% of the rockets. But some have caused damage to cars and buildings, including the Yad Michael synagogue in Ashkelon, where a hole was blasted through the wall just before a Sunday evening service for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot.

 

Officials in Gaza said Sunday had been the deadliest day of the flare-up so far. Israeli air strikes hit a busy street in Gaza just after midnight, causing at least three buildings to collapse.

Emergency workers spent the day trying to rescue people from under the debris. Gazan officials later said 42 people, including 16 women and 10 children, had died in the air strikes.

The UN has also warned of fuel shortages in Gaza which could lead to hospitals and other facilities losing power.

 

Lynn Hastings, UN deputy special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, told the BBC that she had appealed to Israeli authorities to allow the UN to bring in fuel and supplies but was told it was not safe.

The UN Security Council has been unable to agree on a public statement in recent days and none was forthcoming after Sunday's meeting.

The United States - a strong ally of Israel - is said to be the hold-out, believing it would be unhelpful in the diplomatic process.