The UN Security Council was due to hold an emergency meeting Tuesday (18 May) amid a flurry of urgent diplomacy aimed at stemming hostilities between Israel and armed Palestinian groups that have left over 200 dead.
Amid calls for an end to the fighting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late Monday Israel would “continue striking at the terrorist targets”.
Israel launched its air campaign on the Gaza Strip on 10 May after the enclave’s rulers, the Islamist group Hamas, fired rockets towards the Jewish state, an escalation sparked by unrest in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.
In total 212 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, including at least 61 children, and more than 1,400 wounded — whilst in Israel, ten people have died, including one child, with hundreds injured, according to officials on both sides.
Tuesday’s emergency UNSC session — the fourth since the conflict escalated — was called after the United States, a key Israel ally, blocked the adoption of a joint statement calling for a halt to the violence for the third time in a week on Monday.
US President Joe Biden, having resisted joining other world leaders and much of his own Democratic party in calling for an immediate end to hostilities, told Netanyahu Monday night he backs a ceasefire, but stopped short of demanding a truce.
Israel continued its barrage of Gaza overnight, setting the dark sky ablaze over the crowded, coastal enclave as multiple strikes crashed into buildings in Gaza City shortly after midnight, AFP journalists said.
Covid-19 lab hit
Hours before, strikes had knocked out the only Covid-19 testing laboratory in the strip and damaged the office of Qatar’s Red Crescent.
The rate of positive coronavirus tests in Gaza has been among the highest in the world, at 28%.
Hospitals in the poverty-stricken territory, which has been under Israeli blockade for almost 15 years, have been overwhelmed by patients.
Gaza resident Roba Abu al-Awf, 20, was bracing for a rough night.
“We have nothing to do but sit at home,” she said. “Death could come at any moment — the bombing is crazy and indiscriminate.”
Israeli fire has cratered roads and battered crucial infrastructure, causing blackouts and leading the electricity authority Monday to warn it only had enough fuel left to provide power for another two to three days.
The security crisis risks precipitating a humanitarian disaster, with the UN saying nearly 40,000 Palestinians have been displaced and another 2,500 have lost their homes in the bombardments.
Palestinian militants have fired around 3,350 rockets toward Israel in the heaviest exchange of fire in years.
Hamas has threatened more rocket strikes on Tel Aviv if bombing of residential areas does not stop.
Israeli fighter jets also hit what the army calls the “Metro”, its term for Hamas’ underground tunnels, which Israel has previously acknowledged run in part through civilian areas.
Rockets were also volleyed toward Israel from within the territory of its northern neighbour Lebanon, where protests against the Jewish state’s Gaza campaign have been held in the border area.
The Israeli army said the six rockets did not reach its territory.
In the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967, Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas urged Washington to act against “Israel’s aggression”, in a meeting with US envoy for Israeli and Palestinian affairs Hady Amr, the official Wafa news agency reported.
Even as UNSC efforts talks have faltered and the US has been accused of obstructionism, mediation channels are being opened behind the scenes.
Biden’s national security advisor Jake Sullivan said he had spoken to his Israeli counterpart and the Egyptian government — a key intermediary — on Monday, saying that Washington was engaged in “quiet, intensive diplomacy”.
French and Egyptian presidents Emmanuel Macron and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are pushing for a ceasefire deal and aim to get the backing of Jordan. Another channel has been opened, via the UN, with the help of Qatar and Egypt.
European Union foreign ministers will also hold urgent talks by videoconference Tuesday on the violence, announced by EU top diplomat Josep Borrell who has been conducting “intense” diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the fighting.
The conflict was sparked after clashes broke out at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound — one of Islam’s holiest sites — on 7 May after Israeli forces moved in on worshippers.
This followed a crackdown against protests over planned expulsions of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.
Israel is also trying to contain inter-communal violence between Jews and Arab-Israelis, as well as unrest in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinian authorities say Israeli forces have killed 20 Palestinians since 10 May.
Abbas’ Fatah party has called for a “day of anger” and a general strike on Tuesday, a call echoed in Israeli Arab towns and in “mixed” towns in Israel, where tension between Jews and Arabs remain high.