Israel has said it will expand its bombing campaign against Palestinian militants in Gaza “over the coming days”, despite mounting international pressure to end its offensive.
Israeli fighter jets conducted an intense bombardment of the Gaza Strip overnight, just hours after US president Joe Biden publicly backed international calls for a ceasefire between the Jewish state and Hamas.
Sixty Israeli warplanes carried out dozens of air strikes on what the military described as a network of tunnels used by militants.
“That is an effort that has been ongoing, we continue with that effort, and we will continue. The assessment is that that effort will be expanded to areas that we so far have not conducted this effort in, and that is to be expected over the coming days,” said Lt Colonel Jonathan Conricus, saying that the IDF had been focusing its offensive strikes on a tunnel infrastructure dubbed the “Gaza metro”.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that the offensive “will continue as long as it takes in order to restore calm for all of Israel’s citizens”.
Israeli strikes had killed 213 Palestinians, including 61 children and 36 women as of Tuesday, according to the Gaza health ministry. Israeli army officials said 130 of the dead were Hamas combatants, and disputed — without evidence — Gazan estimates that nearly half of the dead were women and children.
Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, has fired more than 3,400 rockets into Israeli cities since the fighting began on May 10. Israel has reported that 11 Israelis have been killed by Hamas’s attacks, including two children. Two Thai workers were killed when rockets struck southern Israel on Tuesday.
In Gaza, Israeli strikes destroyed a six-story building that housed bookstores and educational centres on Tuesday, the Associated Press reported.
A UN agency said more than 52,000 Palestinians in the walled-in Gaza Strip had been forced from their homes as Israel’s bombardment had destroyed 132 buildings and severely damaged more than 300 others.
Aid workers in the impoverished, densely populated strip of 2m people fear that the number of Palestinian deaths will rise as rescue workers struggle to pull the dead and wounded from beneath mounds of rubble.
As the death toll mounted, Biden spoke to Netanyahu on Monday, with the US president facing rising criticism from American progressives, including within his own Democratic party, who want the administration to exert more pressure to stop the hostilities.
“The president expressed his support for a ceasefire and discussed US engagement with Egypt and other partners towards that end,” according to a White House readout of the call. Biden also “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians”.
The US blocked a UN Security Council statement on Monday calling for de-escalation, cessation of violence and respect for international law, according to two UN diplomats. It was the third time Washington had thwarted a statement or softer measures since the violence began.
An informal meeting of EU foreign ministers ended without conclusions. All member states but Hungary supported the “general thrust” of a common statement that urged an immediate end to the violence and implementation of a ceasefire, said EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.
Basem Naim, head of international relations for Hamas, said to ABC news that the group had told the UN and Egyptian and Qatari mediators that it was ready to “stop the escalation if the Israelis stop the aggression against our people”.
He added that Hamas wanted Israel to end its plans to evict Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, a neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem, and remove restrictions on the compound housing al-Aqsa mosque.
The latest crisis was triggered when police used rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades against Palestinians protesting against restrictions at the compound of al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site. More than 600 Palestinians were wounded. The mosque is in a compound in Jerusalem that is known to Muslims as Haram ash-Sharif and to Jews as Temple Mount, and which is sacred to both religions.
As tensions escalated, Hamas last week fired rockets deep into Israel, which responded with air strikes on Gaza.
The unrest has since spread to the occupied West Bank, and on Tuesday Israeli forces shot a Palestinian in Hebron, whom they said attacked soldiers with an explosive device and knife.
West Bank health officials said another Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli forces during clashes after protests in and around Ramallah, the seat of Fatah, a rival faction to Hamas. Israeli police said two security forces were shot in the leg, the first such incidents in the West Bank for years.
The Israeli military has killed at least 22 Palestinians in the territory since protests broke out across the West Bank on Friday, Palestinian health officials said.
Palestinians in the West Bank and Arab Israelis in the Jewish state took part in a general strike on Tuesday to protest against Israel’s actions.