Israel slammed the Gaza Strip with airstrikes, in a dramatic escalation that included bombing the home of a senior Hamas leader, killing a family of 10 in a refugee camp — most of them children — and pulverizing a high-rise that housed The Associated Press and other media.
The Hamas militant group continued a stream of rocket volleys into Israel, including a late-night barrage on Tel Aviv. One man was killed Saturday when a rocket hit his home in a suburb of the seaside metropolis.
With a US envoy on the ground, calls increased for a cease-fire after five days of mayhem that have left at least 145 Palestinians dead in Gaza — including 41 children and 23 women — and eight dead on the Israeli side, all but one of them civilians, including a five-year-old.
President Joe Biden, who has called for a de-escalation but has backed Israel's campaign, spoke separately by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
Still, Israel stepped up its assault, vowing to shatter the capabilities of Gaza's Hamas rulers. The week of deadly violence, set off by a Hamas rocket Monday, came after weeks of mounting tensions and heavy-handed Israeli measures in contested Jerusalem.
Early Sunday, Israeli warplanes struck several buildings and roads in a vital part of Gaza City. Photos circulated by residents and journalists showed the airstrikes created a crater that blocked one of the main roads leading to Shifa, the largest hospital in the strip.
The Health Ministry said the latest airstrikes left at least two dead and 25 wounded, including children and women. There has been no immediate comment from the Israeli military.
On Saturday, Israel bombed the home of Khalil al-Hayeh, a senior figure in Hamas' political branch, saying the building served as part of the group's “terrorist infrastructure.” There was no immediate report on al-Hayeh's fate or on any casualties.
The bombing of al-Hayeh's home showed Israel was expanding its campaign beyond just the group's military commanders. Israel says it has killed dozens in Hamas' military branch, though Hamas and the smaller group Islamic Jihad have only acknowledged 20 dead members.
Since the conflict began, Israel has levelled a number of Gaza City's tallest office and residential buildings, alleging they house elements of the Hamas military infrastructure. On Saturday, it turned to the 12-story al-Jalaa Building, where the offices of the AP, the TV network Al-Jazeera and other media outlets are located, along with several floors of apartments.
“The campaign will continue as long as it is required,” Netanyahu said in a televised speech on Saturday evening. He alleged that Hamas military intelligence was operating inside the building.
Israel routinely cites a Hamas presence as a reason for targeting certain locations in airstrikes, including residential buildings. The military also has accused the militant group of using journalists as human shields, but provided no evidence to back up the claims.
The AP has operated from the building for 15 years, including through three previous wars between Israel and Hamas, without being targeted directly. During those conflicts as well as the current one, the news agency's cameras from its top floor office and roof terrace offered 24-hour live shots as militants' rockets arched toward Israel and Israeli airstrikes hammered the city and its surroundings.
In the afternoon, the military called the building's owner and warned a strike would come within an hour. AP staffers and other occupants evacuated safely.
Soon after, three missiles hit the building and destroyed it, bringing it crashing down in a giant cloud of dust. “The world will know less about what is happening in Gaza because of what happened today,” AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt said in a statement.
Mostefa Souag, acting director-general of Al-Jazeera Media Network, called the strike a “war crime” aiming to “silence the media and to hide the untold carnage and suffering of the people of Gaza.”
Later in the day, White House press secretary Jen Psaki tweeted that the US had “communicated directly to the Israelis that ensuring the safety and security of journalists and independent media is a paramount responsibility.”
In the early hours Saturday, another airstrike hit an apartment building in Gaza City's densely populated Shati refugee camp, killing two women and eight children.
Mediators from Egypt, which works closely with Israel on security issues and shares a border with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, appeared to be growing alarmed. The intelligence official said Egypt hopes the US intervention could halt the Israeli assault. The UN Security Council was set to meet Sunday.
The tensions began in east Jerusalem earlier this month, when Palestinians protested attempts by settlers to forcibly evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes and Israeli police measures at Al-Aqsa Mosque, a frequent flashpoint located on a mount in the Old City revered by Muslims and Jews.
Hamas fired rockets toward Jerusalem late Monday, triggering the Israeli assault on Gaza. Since then, Hamas has fired more than 2,000 rockets, though most have either fallen short or been intercepted by anti-missile defenses. Israel's warplanes and artillery have struck hundreds of targets around blockaded Gaza, where some 2 million Palestinians live.