Fears of ‘full-scale war’ as Middle East violence escalates

TEL AVIV (AFP) – Relentless rocket fire and rioting in towns fuelled growing fears yesterday that violence between Israel and Palestinians that has claimed 50 lives could spiral into “full-scale war”.

The most intense hostilities in seven years have killed at least 43 people in Gaza, including 13 children, two Palestinians in the West Bank, and five Israelis, triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound.

As world powers voiced growing alarm and the United Nations (UN) Security Council readied for another emergency meeting on the bloody crisis, the UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland warned that “we’re escalating towards a full-scale war”.

“Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation,” he said, echoing warnings from the international community.

Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes at Gaza, the Israeli-blockaded coastal enclave of two million people that Hamas controls, targeting what the army described as Palestinian military sites.

Aside from the mounting death toll, at least 230 Palestinians were wounded, many rescued from the smouldering ruins of buildings.

Smoke rises after an airstrike in Gaza City. PHOTO: AP

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson yesterday urged Israel and the Palestinians to “step back from the brink”, calling for both sides to “show restraint”.

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court Fatou Bensouda voiced concern at the escalation of violence and said “crimes” may have been committed.

Bensouda announced on March 3 that she had opened a full investigation into the situation in the Israeli-occupied territories, infuriating Israel, which not a member of The Hague-based court.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz warned on Tuesday that “this is just the beginning” of Israel’s strikes, vowing that the operation would aim to restore peace “for the long-term”.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh vowed in turn to step up its operation warning that “if Israel wants to escalate, we are ready for it”.

Israeli army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said he expected the fighting to intensify and, when asked about unconfirmed reports that Hamas might seek a ceasefire, said, “I don’t think my commanders are aware, or particularly interested.”

In Gaza City, people sifted through debris after an Israeli air strike destroyed a 12-storey building near the coastline.

Hamas said the tower block had been a residential building. AFP reporters said it also housed the offices of several Hamas officials.

Five members of a single family were killed by an Israeli strike in northern Gaza on Tuesday, including young brothers Ibrahim and Marwan, who were filling sacks of straw at the time.

“We were laughing and having fun when suddenly they began to bomb us. Everything around us caught fire,” their cousin, also called Ibrahim, told AFP.

“I saw my cousins set alight and torn to pieces,” said the 14-year-old, breaking down in tears.