Israel calls up 9,000 troops and fires tank shells into Gaza as Hamas continues to issue barrage of rockets

Israel and Palestinian leaders responded to the violence between Jewish and Arab residents, ITV News International Correspondent John Irvine reports

Israel has said it is massing troops on the border after calling up 9,000 reservists and beginning to fire artillery and tank shells into Gaza, in the latest escalation of tensions in the Middle East.

Around 200 Palestinians are said to be seeking shelter in a United Nations school.

The use of artillery fire marks an escalation in Israel’s four-day-old offensive in Gaza and raises the likelihood of civilian casualties. The attacks occurred in northern communities near the Israeli frontier and in eastern Gaza City.

Meanwhile Hamas has continued to send a barrage of rockets into Israel, aiming many at Ben Gurion airport.

The relentless escalation of hostilities came even as Egyptian negotiators held in-person talks with the two sides, intensifying efforts at mediation which are yet to bear fruit.

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Eid al-Fitr, the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, is usually a festive time when families shop for new clothes and gather for large feasts.

But it is a sombre time for Muslim Palestinians as fierce violence continues in Gaza with Hamas and Israel trading more rockets and airstrikes and Jewish-Arab violence raging across the state.

The violence has reached deeper into Israel than at any time since the 2,000 Palestinian intifada, or uprising.

Arab and Jewish mobs are rampaging through the streets, savagely beating people and torching cars, and flights have been canceled or diverted away from the country’s main airport.

Rockets are launched from Gaza Strip to Israel. Credit: AP

Residents are bracing themselves for more devastation as militants fire one barrage of rockets after another and Israel carries out waves of airstrikes, sending plumes of smoke rising into the air.

Hamas urged Muslims to mark communal Eid prayers inside their homes or the nearest mosques instead of out in the open, as is traditional.

Thousands of Palestinian Muslims gathered at the Al-Aqsa compound early on Thursday to take part in prayers

Hassan Abu Shaaban tried to lighten the mood by passing out sweets to passers-by after prayers and said: "There is no atmosphere for Eid at all.

"It is all airstrikes, destruction and devastation," he added.

"May God help everyone."

In another sign fighting could escalate further, Israel’s defence minister approved the mobilisation of 9,000 more reservist troops, and Israel’s military spokesperson said forces were massing on the border with the Gaza Strip.

The Defence Ministry said on Thursday that the latest mobilisation approved by Defence Minister Benny Gantz was an “exceptional call-up".

Since the rockets began on Monday, Israel has toppled three high-rise buildings that it said housed Hamas facilities after warning civilians to evacuate.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said the death toll has climbed to 103 Palestinians, including 27 children and 11 women, with 530 people wounded.

Relatives of Israeli soldier Omer Tabib, 21, mourn at his funeral. Credit: AP

Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of seven militants, while Hamas, the Islamic militant group that seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, acknowledged that a top commander and 19 other members were killed.

Israel says the number of militants killed is much higher than Hamas has acknowledged.

A total of seven people have been killed in Israel. Among them were a soldier killed by an anti-tank missile and a six-year-old child hit in a rocket attack.

In Gaza’s southern town of Khan Younis, dozens of mourners marched through the streets carrying the bodies of an 11-year-old and a 13-year-old killed when an Israeli airstrike hit near their home on Wednesday.

The owner of a five-story building in Gaza City, meanwhile, said he got a call from the Israeli military on Thursday asking him to evacuate it before an airstrike brought it down.

“The building is residential, what is in to hit?” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of security concerns.

The Israeli military later said the building housed intelligence offices used by Hamas.

Mourners at the funeral of Reema Telbani and her 5-year-old son Zaid, who were killed in Israeli airstrikes. Credit: AP

In Washington, President Joe Biden said he spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about calming the fighting but also backed the Israeli leader by saying “there has not been a significant overreaction.” He said the goal now is to “get to a point where there is a significant reduction in attacks, particularly rocket attacks that are indiscriminately fired into population centers.” He called the effort a “a work in progress.”

The escalating fighting between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers has echoed - and perhaps even exceeded - their devastating 50-day war in 2014.

That conflict and two others were largely confined to the impoverished and blockaded Palestinian territory and Israeli communities on the frontier.

But this round - which like the intifada, began in Jerusalem - appears to be spreading far and wide.

An Egyptian delegation is in Tel Aviv for talks with Israeli officials as part of efforts to negotiate a cease-fire in the escalating conflict, officials said on Thursday.

The same delegation met with Hamas officials in the Gaza Strip first, they told Associated Press, and crossed into Israel by land.

Egypt has played a mediating role in the past between the sides.

Late Wednesday, Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shukry, condemned Israeli attacks on Palestinian territory in a phone call with his Israeli counterpart, Gabi Ashkenazi.

He said it was important for both sides to avoid escalation and resorting to military means, according to a readout of the call.

Smoke and fire rise following Israeli airstrikes on a building in Gaza City Credit: Adel Hana/AP

Prime Minister Boris Johnson waded in on Thursday, saying the UK wants the "cycle" of violence to end after clashes in the Gaza strip.

"I think it's important we break that cycle and end this idea of reprisal," he said.

"What everybody wants to see is urgent de-escalation and that's what Dom Raab has been saying to his counterparts, both in Israel and Palestinian authority.

"I certainly think everybody in the world wants to see end to cycle or reprisals and retaliation. They want to see de-escalation and see both sides, sitting down talking it through and stopping the violence."

PM on escalating Israel and Palestine violence: 'I think everybody is very concerned and we in the UK are very sad to see what is happening'

Overnight, the streets of Gaza City resembled a ghost town as people huddled indoors on the final night of Ramadan.

"There is nowhere to run. There is nowhere to hide," said Zeyad Khattab, a 44-year-old pharmacist who fled with a dozen other relatives to a family home in central Gaza after bombs pounded his apartment building in Gaza City.

"That terror is impossible to describe."

The Middle East minister said the UK government was responding to the "heartbreaking" events by asking both sides to "work for peace".

James Cleverly said: "When we look at the images in both Gaza and in Israel, and they are heartbreaking.

"We have been working intensively over the last couple of days, both speaking to the leadership in Israel and with the Palestinian leadership directly but also with regional partners and international partners, to try and de-escalate the situation to ask both sides to step away from conflict and not to do anything to make the situation worse.

"We will continue to do that, we will continue to work for peace and encourage a negotiated political settlement rather than through conflict."

Israeli police clashed with Israeli Arab protesters in the northern town of Jisr al-Zarqa on Wednesday night

Gaza militants continued to bombard Israel with nonstop rocket fire throughout the day and into early Thursday.

The attacks brought life to a standstill in southern communities near Gaza, but also reached as far north as the Tel Aviv area, about 45 miles to the north, for a second straight day.

The military said sirens also wailed in northern Israel’s Emek area, or Jezreel Valley, the farthest the effects of Gaza rockets have reached since 2014.

Smoke rises after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza in Gaza City Credit: Adel Hana/AP

“We’re coping, sitting at home, hoping it will be OK,” said Motti Haim, a resident of the central town of Beer Yaakov and father of two children.

“It’s not simple running to the shelter. It’s not easy with the kids.”

  • Residents and shop owners in Gaza City walk among the rubble and what is left of their homes and businesses on Thursday:

Israeli television’s Channel 12 reported late on Wednesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet authorised a widening of the offensive.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres condemned the “indiscriminate launching of rockets” from civilian areas in Gaza toward Israeli population centres, but he also urged Israel to show “maximum restraint”.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Mr Netanyahu to support Israel’s right to defend itself and said he was sending a senior diplomat to the region to try to calm tensions.

The current eruption of violence began a month ago in Jerusalem, where heavy-handed Israeli police tactics during 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, built on a hilltop compound that is revered by Jews and Muslims, where police fired tear gas and stun grenades at protesters who threw chairs and stones at them.

Hamas, claiming to be defending Jerusalem, launched a barrage of rockets at the city late on Monday, setting off days of fighting.

The Israeli military says militants have fired about 1,500 rockets in just three days. That is roughly one-third the number fired during the entire 2014 war.

Israel, meanwhile, has struck over 350 targets in Gaza, a tiny territory where two million Palestinians have lived under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas took power in 2007.