JERUSALEM – A new front opened in the military confrontation between the IDF and Palestinian militants in Gaza on Wednesday as a wave of popular violence between Jews and Arabs spread through several Israeli towns, leading to riots and attacks in the streets as rockets and missiles rushed across the sky.
Israel said it assassinated 10 high-level militants and continued to shell military and residential areas across the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, while Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, and its allies continued to fire. rockets on civilian areas in central and southern Israel.
More than 1,000 rockets had been fired from Gaza on Wednesday evening, most of them intercepted by a missile defense system, the IDF said.
More than 67 Palestinians, including 16 children, have died since the conflict began on Monday, Palestinian health officials said. Rockets fired by Hamas and its Islamist ally, Islamic Jihad, killed at least six Israeli civilians, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier.
The fighting showed no signs of abating. An Israeli military official said Wednesday that three infantry brigades “were preparing for the worst-case scenario”, confirming that a ground invasion could follow the aerial bombardment.
But the most unexpected developments occurred on the streets of Israeli towns and villages, when rival Jewish and Arab mobs attacked people, cars, shops, offices and hotels.
One of the most frightening incidents happened in Bat Yam, a seaside suburb south of Tel Aviv, where dozens of Jewish extremists took turns beating and kicking a man believed to be Arab, even as his body lay motionless on the ground.
Another happened in Acre, a northern coastal town, where an Arab mob beat a Jew with sticks and stones, also leaving him in critical condition. A third was near Tamra, where an Arab mob almost stabbed a Jew to death.
Israeli officials say they have ‘locked down’ the town of Lod in central Israel, the first time such action has been taken in decades, and arrested 280 people accused of rioting across the country .
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the violence “anarchy” and called an emergency cabinet meeting that lasted until the wee hours of Thursday to “empower the police” and enforce curfews “if needed”.
The sudden turn of events, which in less than two full days turned from a localized dispute in Jerusalem to full-scale air war over Gaza to widespread civil unrest, shocked both Israelis and Palestinians, and has left some of the country’s most experienced leaders feared. that the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict was heading into new territory.
For years, leaders have warned that a failure to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could eventually lead to fighting within the State of Israel itself, said Tzipi Livni, former cabinet minister and former negotiator in Israel. leader in peace talks with the Palestinians.
“And that’s exactly what’s happening now,” she said. “What may have been below the surface has now exploded and created a truly horrific combination.”
“I don’t want to use the words ‘civil war’,” she added. “But it’s something new, it’s unbearable, it’s horrible and I’m very worried.”
The unrest brought the Palestinian conflict to the world’s attention after several years in which attempts to resolve it had faded from both global and national agendas. Once the centerpiece of international diplomacy, there have been no serious peace talks since the Obama administration.
President Donald J. Trump dismissed the Palestinian conflict and persuaded four Arab governments to normalize relations with Israel, breaking decades of Arab consensus that resolving the Palestinian conflict and ending the occupation must come first.
For weeks, ethnic tensions mounted in Jerusalem, at the center of the conflict. In April, far-right Jews marched through the city center chanting “Death to the Arabs”, and crowds of Jews and Arabs attacked each other.
Palestinian anger grew as the deadline approached to evict several families from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, east Jerusalem – a case that quickly became a substitute for historic evictions of Palestinians from their lands elsewhere in Israel.
The situation finally boiled over after a police raid on one of Islam’s holiest sites, the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem on Monday, which police said was in response to stone throwing by Palestinian protesters.
Hamas launched long-range rockets at Jerusalem on Monday evening, prompting Israel to respond with airstrikes. The military conflict also sparked a wave of protests and riots in Arab areas across Israel that night.
As the violence escalated, diplomats around the world called on both sides to end the fighting.
Speaking to reporters, President Joseph R. Biden said he had spoken “for a while” with Mr. Netanyahu on Wednesday and said he expected tensions “to worsen. as soon as possible”. Mr. Biden added that “Israel has the right to defend itself when thousands of rockets are flying in your territory.”
Officials in several Arab countries, including some that had normalized relations with Israel, criticized his actions. Saudi Arabia, which has not normalized its relations with Israel, condemned “in the strongest terms the blatant attacks carried out by the Israeli occupation forces on the sanctity of the Al Aqsa Mosque”.
In Kuwait and Istanbul, protests took place on Tuesday evening.
While the immediate triggers of the Palestinian riots were the Aqsa Mosque, the Sheikh Jarrah affair and the conflict in Gaza, the riots also sparked years of pent-up anger on the part of Israel’s Arab minority, which numbers around 20. % Population.
They have full citizenship and many have gone on to become lawmakers, judges and senior officials. But rights activists say they are nonetheless victims of dozens of discriminatory laws, including a recent law that downgraded the status of the Arabic language and said that only Jews had the right to determine the nature of the Israeli state.
“The way we are treated is like we shouldn’t be here,” said Diana Buttu, Palestinian political analyst from Haifa, a city in northern Israel, and former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization. . “We are the people they did not mistakenly ethnically cleanse from this place.”
In the central city of Lod, the government declared a state of emergency early Wednesday after a synagogue, school and several vehicles were set on fire by Arab rioters on Monday and Tuesday evening.
A Palestinian citizen, Moussa Hassouna, was shot dead by a Jewish resident during Monday night’s unrest, and another wave of unrest followed his funeral 24 hours later.
Israeli police said Arab mobs were dragging Jews from their homes and trying to kill them.
“I feel like it was 100 years ago, and I’m a helpless Jew in the pogroms,” said Shabtai Pessin, 27, standing in a grilled classroom of a religious school in Lod. “What is our sin? Want a Jewish state after 2000 years of exile? “
In the northern city of Acre, a popular Jewish fish restaurant was set on fire, while Arab Bedouins attacked police stations and passing cars in the Negev desert in southern Israel.
The riots on Wednesday prompted crowds of Jews to respond.
In the cities of Gold Akiva and Beersheva, the Jews stoned the cars of people they believed to be Arabs. In Tiberias, they threw stones at hotels housing Arabs, who threw objects from their windows in return. Cars were set on fire in several towns. And an Arab mob in Haifa ransacked a hotel owned by Jews.
“This is happening as we speak,” hotel owner Evan Fallenberg said by phone Wednesday night. “People say this is a break that we can’t get over. I don’t believe this – I know my friendships are lasting. But that will put everything to the test. We are heading for something extremely difficult and dangerous, and I don’t know where it will end or how.
The report was edited by Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel; Irit Pazner Garshowitz and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem; Iyad Abuhweila from Gaza City; Megan Specia from London; and Annie Karni from Washington.