Gaza City:The Israeli military unleashed a wave of heavy airstrikes on the Gaza Strip early Monday, saying it destroyed 15 kilometers (nine miles) of militant tunnels and the homes of nine alleged Hamas commanders.
Residents of Gaza awakened by the overnight barrage described it as the heaviest since the war began a week ago, and even more powerful than a wave of airstrikes in Gaza City the day before that left 42 dead and flattened three buildings.
There was no immediate word on the casualties from the latest strikes. A three-story building in Gaza City was heavily damaged, but residents said the military warned them 10 minutes before the strike and everyone cleared out. They said many of the airstrikes hit nearby farmland.
Gaza’s mayor Yahya Sarraj told Al-Jazeera TV that the airstrikes had caused extensive damage to roads and other infrastructure. “If the aggression continues we expect conditions to become worse,” he said.
He also warned that the territory was running low on fuel and other spare parts. The U.N. has warned that Gaza’s sole power station is at risk of running out of fuel. The territory already experiences daily power outages of 8-12 hours and tap water is undrinkable.
The war broke out last Monday, when Hamas fired long-range rockets at Jerusalem after weeks of clashes in the Holy City between Palestinian protesters and Israeli police. The protests were focused on the heavy-handed policing of a flashpoint holy site during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
Since then, the Israeli military has launched hundreds of airstrikes that it says are targeting Hamas’ militant infrastructure. Palestinian militants in Gaza have fired more than 3,100 rockets into Israel.
At least 188 Palestinians have been killed in hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza, including 55 children and 33 women, with 1,230 people wounded. Eight people in Israel have been killed in rocket attacks launched from Gaza, including a 5-year-old boy and a soldier.
“I have not seen this level of destruction through my 14 years of work,” said Samir al-Khatib, an emergency rescue official in Gaza. “Not even in the 2014 war,” he added, referring to the most destructive of the four wars fought between Israel and Hamas.
The military said it struck nine houses in different parts of northern Gaza that belonged to “high ranking commanders” in Hamas, the Islamic militant group that has controlled the territory since seizing power from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.
In recent days, Israel has targeted the homes of a number of senior Hamas leaders, including Yehiyeh Sinwar, the top leader inside Gaza. The group’s leadership goes underground when the fighting begins and it’s unlikely any were at home at the time of the strikes.
Hamas and the Islamic Jihad militant group say at least 20 of their fighters have been killed, while Israel says the number is much higher and has released the names of and photos of more than two dozen militant commanders it says were “eliminated.”
The military said it struck 35 “terror targets” as well as the tunnels, which it says are part of an elaborate system it refers to as the “Metro,” used by fighters to elude aircraft. The military says 54 aircraft took part in the operation.
In a televised address Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel’s attacks were continuing at “full-force” and would “take time.“ Israel “wants to levy a heavy price” on the Hamas militant group.
Israel’s airstrikes have leveled a number of Gaza City’s tallest buildings, which Israel alleges contained Hamas military infrastructure. Among them was the building housing The Associated Press Gaza office and those of other media outlets.
Sally Buzbee, the AP’s executive editor, has called for an independent investigation into the airstrike that destroyed the AP office on Saturday. The Israeli military alerted staff and residents before the strike and all were able to evacuate the building safely.
Netanyahu alleged that Hamas military intelligence was operating inside the building and said Sunday any evidence would be shared through intelligence channels. Neither the White House nor the State Department would say if any had been seen.
The AP had operated from the building for 15 years, including through three previous wars between Israel and Hamas. The news agency’s cameras, operating from its top floor office and roof terrace, offered 24-hour live shots as militant rockets arched toward Israel and Israeli airstrikes hammered the city and its surroundings.
AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt released a statement after Saturday’s attack saying he was “shocked and horrified” that Israel targeted the building. He said the AP had “no indication Hamas was in the building or active in the building.”
“This is something we actively check to the best of our ability. We would never knowingly put our journalists at risk.” (AP)