The Hamas militant group targeted Tel Aviv with dozens of rockets on Tuesday evening after Israel stepped up the intensity of its air strikes on the Gaza Strip.
The escalation threatened to turn a two-day round of hostilities into a broader conflict with unrest also breaking out among Arab populations in Israeli cities.
Flights were rerouted as the skies over central Tel Aviv were lit up with Israel’s Iron Dome defences tracking dozens of rockets simultaneously. One hit a reportedly empty bus in Holon to the south of Tel Aviv. At least six people received medical attention and more casualties are expected.
The escalation came hours after Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister, ordered an expansion of Israel’s air campaign in the Gaza Strip, as the Israeli military sought to degrade Hamas’s operational abilities with dozens of bombing runs, targeting rocket launching pads and military commanders.
“Hamas will receive blows here that it did not expect,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday evening. Hamas responded with a vow to attack Tel Aviv, saying that it had launched 130 rockets at a time in a probable attempt to overwhelm the Israeli air defences.
Benny Gantz, defence minister, who has ordered 5,000 reserve troops back to duty, said earlier that Israel’s air campaign would continue until “its operational goals are met”.
Authorities in Gaza said 28 Palestinians had been killed, including nine children, although it was not clear if all the deaths were because of Israeli air strikes. A multistorey building in Gaza collapsed in an air strike.
Three Israeli civilians were killed, and close to a dozen injured, Israeli medics said.
Israel has killed at least 20 Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants, according to the Israel Defense Forces. With Israel carrying out complex manoeuvres, it warned that civilian casualties were likely. “Some of the [rocket] firing pits are embedded within the civilian population and it cannot be ruled out that there will be civilian casualties,” it said.
After days of tension inside Jerusalem, the militant group that runs Gaza on Monday night fired rockets towards the city, the furthest into Israel they have reached since 2014. Israel responded immediately with dozens of targeted air strikes.
The Hamas action came after Israeli police on Monday cleared Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque, a holy site for Muslims and Jews, injuring hundreds of Muslim protesters with tear gas, stun grenades and rubber bullets. Palestinians have been angered by restrictions near the mosque and the planned evictions of Arabs to make way for Jewish settlers.
Egyptian, Qatari and UN officials who mediate between Israel and Hamas were trying to restore calm, an Israeli official said on Tuesday. Israel had rejected Hamas’s first offer of a truce, Channel 12 TV reported.
The Arab League described Israel’s response in Gaza as “indiscriminate and irresponsible” and “a miserable show of force at the expense of children’s blood”.
Jen Psaki, White House spokesperson, said that Joe Biden, US president, had been receiving updates from his national security team and that his primary focus was on de-escalation.
She said that the US condemned rocket attacks by Hamas and other groups, including attacks on Jerusalem, and that Biden’s support for “Israel’s security, for its legitimate right to defend itself and its people, is fundamental and will never waver”.
“Jerusalem, a city of such importance to people of faith around the world, must be a place of coexistence,” Psaki said.
The UN Security Council would meet in private session on Wednesday, diplomats said, to discuss the outbreak of violence.
In a sign of widening unrest, riots broke out in several Israeli towns including Lod, Ramle and Jaffa — each with large Arab-Israeli populations. Netanyahu moved border police battalions from the occupied West Bank to Lod, near Tel Aviv, after the mayor of the 80,000-population town said the riots there “were too large for the police”.
Police said a patrol car had been set on fire after large crowds attended the funeral of an Arab man allegedly killed by a Jewish resident, and Haaretz newspaper reported that two synagogues and a Jewish school had been burnt.
“This is a giant incident — an intifada [uprising] of Arab Israelis,” Yair Revivo, Lod’s mayor, said on television.
There were also clashes in Hebron in the West Bank. “There were wild disturbances here yesterday, which we cannot tolerate, by young hotheads. Our directive is to do everything to maintain law and order,” Netanyahu said.
Tensions had risen as a court case regarding the evictions of the Arabs coincided with an annual Israeli celebration that began on Sunday called Jerusalem Day, when Israelis celebrate their conquest of Arab East Jerusalem in 1967. The hearing has been postponed.
The violence comes at a precarious time in Israeli politics. Netanyahu’s position has been weakened as coalition talks progress between his rivals, who are close to securing a government that could dethrone the five-time premier. His rightwing supporters view the evictions in East Jerusalem as an important part of a long-running strategy to replace Arabs with Jews in the Holy City.
Additional reporting by Heba Saleh in Cairo