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Netanyahu says Israel will escalate military campaign against Hamas

Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza and Palestinian militants fired rocket barrages May 12 in the region's most intense hostilities in years. (Video: Reuters)

TEL AVIV — Civilians in Israel and the Gaza Strip endured a third day of deadly rocket attacks and airstrikes on Wednesday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying his government planned to further escalate its military campaign against the militant Hamas group.

Amid the worst violence between Israel and Palestinian militants in years, the Israeli cabinet convened to discuss expanding the Gaza operation. Netanyahu said Israel had rejected requests from Hamas to negotiate a cease-fire and estimated that the Gaza operation would last at least another week.

The fighting has already killed 69 Gazans, including 16 children, according to Palestinian health officials. Six Israelis, including one teenage girl, have also died, Israeli emergency response officials say.

President Biden said Wednesday that he had spoken with Netanyahu and asserted his "unwavering support" for Israel's "right to defend itself."

"My hope is that we will see this coming to a conclusion sooner than later," Biden told reporters.

The tensions have also spurred the most serious outburst in two decades of mass protests by Arab citizens of Israel, who have taken to the streets of towns around Israel in support of Palestinians in Gaza and Jerusalem. That unrest has increasingly led to violent confrontations between Arab Israelis on one hand and Israeli police and right-wing Jews on the other.

On Wednesday evening, Jewish and Arab protesters clashed in the central Israeli city of Lod, leading to at least 20 arrests. Similar scenes were repeated in Acre, Tiberias, Jaffa and several other Israeli cities.

Violence between Israelis and Palestinians escalates toward all-out war

A 14-story building in Gaza City known to have housed several local media outlets, including Hamas-run Al-Aqsa TV, was hit in an Israeli strike on May 12. (Video: Reuters)

Earlier in the day, the Israeli military instructed all residents, including farmers, living within 2½ miles of Gaza to temporarily remain in their homes out of concern that Hamas could use short-range rockets, direct-fire rockets or snipers to attack civilians. The military also expressed concern that Hamas would use tunnels to infiltrate Israeli territory, despite a newly built underground sensor system designed to prevent such incursions.

Israel’s Home Front Command ordered the closing of schools and many businesses in Tel Aviv, Netanya, Beersheba and dozens of other Israeli cities as Hamas continued to fire rockets, and officials barred the gathering of more than 10 people in open areas and more than 100 in closed spaces. The government also suspended or reduced train and bus service through towns in southern and central Israel that were hit by rockets the previous night.

Rockets also struck near Ben Gurion Airport, which was temporarily closed with planes rerouted. On Wednesday, U.S. airlines United, Delta and American said they had canceled flights into and out of the airport because of security concerns.

Israeli warplanes, meanwhile, have bombed at least three multi­story buildings in Gaza, destroying two of them, including a downtown Gaza City tower that housed Hamas’s satellite television channel. On Tuesday evening, Israeli airstrikes brought down a 13-story building in Gaza that the Israeli military said housed Hamas military intelligence offices and a rocket research and development unit.

“Gaza residents, you are experiencing this military operation because the terror organizations have again chosen to place you in the line of fire,” the Israeli military said in a Facebook post. “Stay away from them. Stay away from the places where they operate. Protect yourselves and your families.”

In response, Hamas lobbed more than 1,000 rockets and mortar shells toward Tel Aviv and its surroundings and at dozens of communities in southern Israel. One rocket directly hit a bus in the central city of Holon, injuring four people, including a 5-year-old.

In recent years, rockets and other projectiles fired from Gaza have landed close to Tel Aviv, mostly in unoccupied fields and forests. By filling the skies above Tel Aviv with its largest salvos since the 2014 Gaza war, Hamas was seeking to strike fear into a population unaccustomed to ­being on the front lines, analysts said.

“Militarily, it’s not that significant, but psychologically it is,” said Amos Yadlin, a former air force general and military intelligence chief. “It’s not pleasant to hear the sirens and get up at 3 a.m. to go to the shelter.”

Yadlin equated the targeting of Tel Aviv with Hamas’s decision to launch rockets toward Jerusalem on Monday, one of which damaged a house in a suburb. The Israeli military knew that Hamas had rockets that could reach Jerusalem, but Israeli officials were surprised that seven would be fired at the city. The aim was apparently to serve notice that the game had changed.

The surge in violence was triggered after clashes this month in Jerusalem among Palestinians, Israeli police and right-wing Jews. Tensions have been running high, in part because of efforts by Israeli settlers to evict several Palestinian families from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

Running skirmishes between Palestinian worshipers and Israeli police in and around ­al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as clashes elsewhere in Jerusalem, injured hundreds of Palestinians.

While Hamas and the Islamic Jihad group have previously fired rockets into Israel as a show of support for the Palestinian cause, the intensity of the Hamas barrage this week and the withering Israeli response have reached a level unseen since the 2014 Gaza war, and international efforts to broker a truce have so far fallen short.

Israeli military spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus said Israel has hit at least 350 military targets in Gaza and killed at least 25 combatants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The Israeli military said that, in cooperation with the Shin Bet domestic security agency, it carried out a “complex and first-of-its-kind” operation in Gaza City and Khan Younis that killed at least 10 senior Hamas commanders considered close to the organization’s military leader, Mohammed Deif.

As air raid sirens blared inside Israel and the Iron Dome antimissile defense system streaked across the night sky with lines of white light, large demonstrations broke out Tuesday night in predominantly Arab and mixed Arab-Jewish towns across Israel. Some young Arab Israeli men carried Palestinian flags while others torched synagogues and city halls and threw stones at police and passersby.

In Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish town in central Israel that has become a center of unrest after a Palestinian man was shot dead, Netanyahu declared a state of emergency and a nighttime lockdown from 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. The Israeli military transferred border patrol units from the West Bank into the city and into several other Arab and mixed towns that have seen similar clashes.

Lod Mayor Yair Revivo called for calm in Lod and other cities with large Arab populations. “The day after, we will still have to live here together,” he said.

In the central city of Bat Yam on Wednesday, video footage showed what Israeli media called an “attempted lynch in prime time.” It showed a group of Jewish nationalists dragging a man whom they believed to be Arab out of his car and brutally beating him. A doctor at a Tel Aviv hospital said the man had been admitted with serious injuries, the Associated Press reported.

“We’re on the brink of a civil war,” tweeted Esawi Frej, an Arab member of parliament with the left-wing Meretz party. “Hamas missiles are the least of our problems for a country in which Jewish and Arab rioters take to the street to lynch civilians.”

Hendrix reported from Jerusalem.

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