Senior Hamas commander killed in airstrike as UN warns of 'full-scale war' as Israel-Gaza violence escalates

ITV News International Correspondent John Irvine reports on escalating violence in Israel

One of Hamas' most senior leaders has been killed in an airstrike in Gaza amid the worst violence in the region for several years.

At least 56 people, including 14 children, have been killed in Gaza since violence escalated on Monday, according to the enclave’s health ministry, and more than 200 people have been wounded.

Israel said it killed 16 members of the Hamas armed wing in Gaza in a barrage on Wednesday and Palestinian militants rained rockets into Israel as Washington said it would send an envoy to try to calm their most intense hostilities in years.Six people, including one child, have been killed in Hamas air strikes on Israel, medical officials said.

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The further deaths and rising tensions could soon escalate into a "full-scale war" if violence is not quelled soon, a top UN official has warned.

The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Mr Tor Wennesland called on both sides to "stop the fire immediately."

He said: "We’re escalating towards a full-scale war. Leaders on all sides have to take the responsibility of de-escalation."

"The cost of war in Gaza is devastating and is being paid by ordinary people," he added.

Speaking on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the brigade commander for Gaza City was among senior members of the Islamist militant group who had been killed.

“This is just the beginning. We’ll hit them like they’ve never dreamed possible,” he said.

Soon after the announcement, a new rocket barrage was fired at the Israeli city of Ashdod and Israeli media said the military was preparing for new salvoes on the Tel Aviv area.

Hamas confirmed the death of the commander and of “other leaders and holy warriors” in a statement.

Its leader Ismail Haniyeh added: “The confrontation with the enemy is open-ended.”

A Palestinian source said truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had made no progress to end violence that began a month ago in Jerusalem, where heavy-handed police tactics during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers ignited protests and clashes with police.

A focal point was the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a holy site sacred to Jews and Muslims.

As the conflict continued, US President Joe Biden said "Israel has a right to defend itself".

America has long been an ally of Israel and on Wednesday he said he had spoken to Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu.

“My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later,” Mr Biden said.

Adding: “Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory.”

The US President did not mention the Palestinians by name.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel would continue to strike Hamas to restore long-term calm, according to a statement on their call.

The fighting is the heaviest between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in the Hamas-ruled enclave, and concern is growing that the situation could spiral out of control.

Firefighters extinguish burning apartment buildings after they were hit by Israeli airstrikes, in Gaza City. Credit: AP

Earlier on Wednesday, Gaza City’s police headquarters were destroyed in an Israeli air strike.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he is “deeply concerned” about the violence in Gaza and Israel and urged both sides to de-escalate.

He tweeted: “I am urging Israel and the Palestinians to step back from the brink and for both sides to show restraint. The UK is deeply concerned by the growing violence and civilian casualties and we want to see an urgent de-escalation of tensions.”

Relatives of 11-year-old Hussain Hamad, who was killed in the fighting, mourn during his funeral in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza. Credit: AP

Samah Haboub, a mother of four in Gaza, said she was thrown across her bedroom in a “moment of horror” by an airstrike on an apartment tower next door.

She and her children, aged three to 14, ran down the stairway of their apartment block along with other residents, many of them screaming and crying.

“There is almost no safe place in Gaza,” she said.

In the West Bank, meanwhile, a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed during clashes with Israeli troops that entered al-Fawar refugee camp in southern Hebron, Palestine’s health ministry said.

While the violence has been widely condemned, there is no sign that either side is willing to back down. Mr Netanyahu has vowed to expand the offensive, saying “this will take time.”

In another sign of widening unrest, demonstrations erupted in Arab communities across Israel, where protesters set dozens of vehicles on fire in confrontations with police.

Israeli police and Palestinian demonstrators have clashed in recent days Credit: Mahmoud Illean/AP

In the Israeli city of Lod, a 52-year-old man and his 16-year-old daughter were killed on Wednesday when a rocket had landed in the courtyard of their one-storey home.

Their car parked outside was wrecked and the interior of the house was filled by debris. Lod also saw heavy clashes after thousands of mourners joined a funeral for an Arab man killed by a suspected Jewish gunman the previous night.

The crowd fought with police, and set a synagogue and some 30 vehicles, including a police car, on fire, Israeli media reported.

Paramedics said a 56-year-old man was seriously hurt after his car was pelted with stones. “An intifada erupted in Lod, you have to bring in the army,” the city’s mayor, Yair Revivo, said.

Jewish nationalist demonstrators take cover during a barrage of rockets in the Israeli town of Ramla. Credit: AP

Authorities have declared a state of emergency in the city and ordered the redeployment of nine paramilitary border police companies from the occupied West Bank as reinforcements.

The UN Security Council planned to hold its second closed emergency meeting in three days on Wednesday on the escalating violence, an indication of growing international concern.

Council diplomats, speaking on condition of anonymity because discussions have been private, said the UN’s most powerful body did not issue a statement because of US concerns that it could escalate tensions.

The fighting between Israel and Hamas was the most intense since a 50-day war in the summer of 2014.

In just over 24 hours, the current round of violence sparked by religious tensions in the contested city of Jerusalem increasingly resembled that devastating war.