A massive volley of about 100 rockets was fired from the Gaza Strip towards Israel’s economic capital of Tel Aviv in a continuous two-hour barrage on Tuesday night, sending evening revelers into restaurant basements doubling as bomb shelters and propelling families into reinforced stairwells or safe rooms. By early Wednesday, at least five Israelis had been killed, among them three women and a child.
As the war-like battle escalated between Israeli forces and Hamas—the Islamist movement that rules the Gaza Strip—Israeli fighter jets and drones struck Palestinian targets. Health officials in Gaza said at least 53 Palestinians, including 14 children, were killed. The Israeli military said it killed two key figures in Hamas military intelligence.
In Holon, another satellite city south of Tel Aviv, a bus exploded into flames after being struck by a rocket. Holon mayor Motti Sasson was left momentarily speechless, and in tears, by the damage inflicted on his city.
The show of force represents a considerable achievement for Hamas, an internationally recognized terror group that managed to launch an unprecedented shower of rockets and ignite one of Israel’s main oil repositories, sending huge flames into the night sky over the city of Ashkelon, which led to shutdowns at Israel’s schools and airport.
The violence spread like wildfire from the Israel-Gaza border to Israel’s mixed cities, with clashes among Jews and Arabs leading to arson and the complete loss of public order. The Border Police was fully mobilized in an effort to bring calm back to major cities. An emergency was declared in Lod, where thirty vehicles in a majority Jewish neighborhood were set on fire.
Israeli officials appeared to have been surprised by the intensity of the attacks. In brief remarks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israel was “at the height of combat” and warned that “Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad have and will pay a very heavy price for their aggression.”
Chief of Staff General Aviv Kochavi said that Israel had struck more than 500 Hamas targets, including “weapons depots and weapons production sites,” adding that “dozens of terrorists, among them terror leaders, were eliminated.”
Israel engaged in its “knock on the roof” procedure, in which non-explosive charges were launched at high-rise Gaza buildings, warning residents to leave ahead of strikes aimed at rocket launching sites or “terror leaders.”
The Israeli military mentioned two senior commanders killed in the strikes: Hamas’ Iyad Fathi Faik Sharir, the head of an anti-tank guided missile unit in Gaza City, and the head of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s rocket unit, Samih al-Mamluk.
In a public statement from his residence in the Gulf emirate of Qatar, which is Hamas’ principal sponsor, the militia’s leader Ismail Haniyeh declared victory. “We have won the war over Jerusalem!”
The rapid escalation into quasi-war began in late April, when Israeli police set up metallic barriers impeding gathering at Damascus Gate, the large, amphitheater-like entrance to Jerusalem’s Old City, and a traditional spot for evening socializing during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends on Wednesday night.
Palestinian youths from Jerusalem and from the West Bank protested, mostly peacefully, against the barriers, which were soon removed. But it was too late to stop Lehava, a KKK-like group of Jewish supremacists, who in the ensuing days marched from Jerusalem’s City Hall towards Damascus Gate chanting “Death to the Arabs.”
For Lehava, as for Hamas, the rioting and unrest served as an opportunity to show a public presence and attempt to influence minds while the political leadership, for Palestinians and for Israelis alike, hangs in a limbo.
Palestinian elections planned for late May were cancelled when the Israeli government refused to allow east Jerusalem Arabs to vote in Palestinian balloting in Jerusalem, the Israeli capital and a city over which Israel exercises sovereign rule. The international community and the Palestinian government demands that east Jerusalem become the capital of their future state.
A violent Monday raid by Israeli security forces on worshippers at the Al-Aqsa mosque—which left over 300 Palestinians injured—and a contentious ongoing court case that could lead to the eviction of dozens of Palestinians from East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood, further escalated tensions.
More than an actual battle against a much more powerful enemy, “Hamas wants to entrench in Arab and Palestinian minds the message that it is leading the battle for Jerusalem, that it forced the ‘occupation army’ to retreat,” Gal Berger, the Palestinian affairs analyst for Israeli Kan News, told The Daily Beast. “That is the message Hamas wants to engrave in the consciousness of the Arab world.”
On the international front, Israel has been roundly condemned for its handling—or mishandling—of the riots which followed its blockage of Damascus Gate, but few countries have commented on the rocket fire directed at Israeli civilians.
The U.S. State Department confirmed that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, who tweeted that he thanked the United States “for the American support of our right to defend ourselves.”
“We expect the entire international community to condemn Hamas' terrorist activities and the rocket fire from Gaza and not to reward terrorism,” he added.
Former President Donald Trump weighed in with a statement posted to his website, in which he claimed that “under Biden, the world is getting more violent and more unstable because Biden’s weakness and lack of support for Israel is leading to new attacks on our allies.”
“America must always stand with Israel and make clear that the Palestinians must end the violence, terror, and rocket attacks, and make clear that the U.S. will always strongly support Israel’s right to defend itself,” he said.