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35 killed in Gaza, 5 in Israel, as violence escalates

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(Last Updated On: May 12, 2021)

Hostilities between Israel and Hamas escalated on Wednesday, with at least 35 killed in Gaza and five in Israel in the most intensive aerial exchanges for years.

Israel carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Gaza into Wednesday morning, as the Islamist group and other Palestinian militants fired multiple rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and Beersheba.

One multi-story residential building in Gaza collapsed and another was heavily damaged after they were repeatedly hit by Israeli air strikes.

Israel said its jets had targeted and killed several Hamas intelligence leaders early on Wednesday. Other strikes targeted what the military said were rocket launch sites, Hamas offices and the homes of Hamas leaders.

It was the heaviest offensive between Israel and Hamas since a 2014 war in Gaza, and prompted international concern that the situation could spiral out of control.

U.N. Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland tweeted: “Stop the fire immediately. 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 & is being paid by ordinary people. UN is working w/ all sides to restore calm. Stop the violence now,” he wrote.

Gazans homes shook and the sky lit up from Israeli attacks, outgoing rockets and Israeli air defence missiles intercepting them. At least 30 explosions were heard within a matter of minutes just after dawn on Wednesday.

Israelis ran for shelters or flattened themselves on pavements in communities more than 70 km (45 miles) up the coast and into southern Israel amid sounds of explosions as interceptor missiles streaked into the sky.

In the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Lod, near Tel Aviv, two people were killed after a rocket hit a vehicle in the area. Lod and other mixed towns have been gripped by angry demonstrations over the Gaza violence and tensions in Jerusalem.

Hamas’s armed wing said it fired 210 rockets towards Beersheba and Tel Aviv in response to the bombing of the tower buildings in Gaza City. Israel’s military says that around a third of the rockets have fallen short, landing within Gaza.

For Israel, the militants’ targeting of Tel Aviv, its commercial capital, posed a new challenge in the confrontation with the Islamist Hamas group, regarded as a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States.

The violence followed weeks of tension in Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, with clashes between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque, on the compound revered by Jews as Temple Mount and by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

These escalated in recent days ahead of a – now postponed – court hearing in a case that could end with Palestinian families evicted from East Jerusalem homes claimed by Jewish settlers.

Violence has also flared in the occupied West Bank, where a 26-year-old Palestinian was killed by Israeli gunfire during stone-throwing clashes in a refugee camp near the city of Hebron.

‘A VERY HEAVY PRICE’

There appeared no imminent end to the violence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that militants would pay a “very heavy” price for the rockets, which reached the outskirts of Jerusalem on Monday during a holiday in Israel commemorating its capture of East Jerusalem in a 1967 war.

The outbreak of hostilities led Netanyahu’s political opponents to suspend negotiations on forming a coalition of right-wing, leftist and centre-left parties to unseat him after an inconclusive March 23 election.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid has three weeks left to establish a government, with a new election – and another chance for Netanyahu to retain power – likely if he fails.

The Arab League, some of whose members have warmed ties with Israel over the last year, accused it of “indiscriminate and irresponsible” attacks in Gaza and said it was responsible for “dangerous escalation” in Jerusalem.

Hamas named its rocket assault “Sword of Jerusalem”, seeking to marginalise Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and to present itself as the guardians of Palestinians in Jerusalem.

The militant group’s leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said Israel had “ignited fire in Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa and the flames extended to Gaza, therefore, it is responsible for the consequences.”

Haniyeh said that Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations had been in contact urging calm but that Hamas’s message to Israel was: “If they want to escalate, the resistance is ready, if they want to stop, the resistance is ready.”

The White House said on Tuesday that Israel had a legitimate right to defend itself from rocket attacks but applied pressure on Israel over the treatment of Palestinians, saying Jerusalem must be a place of coexistence.

The United States was delaying U.N. Security Council efforts to issue a public statement on escalating tensions because it could be harmful to behind-the-scenes efforts to end the violence, according to diplomats and a source familiar with the U.S. strategy. State Department spokesman Ned Price urged calm and “restraint on both sides”, saying: “The loss of life, the loss of Israeli life, the loss of Palestinian life, It’s something that we deeply regret.”

He added: “We are urging this message of de-escalation to see this loss of life come to an end.”

PLUMES OF BLACK SMOKE

Israel said it had sent 80 jets to bomb Gaza, and dispatched infantry and armour to reinforce the tanks already gathered on the border, evoking memories of the last Israeli ground incursion into Gaza to stop rocket attacks in 2014.

More than 2,100 Gazans were killed in the seven-week war that followed, according to the Gaza health ministry, along with 73 Israelis, and thousands of homes in Gaza were razed by Israeli forces.

Video footage on Tuesday showed three plumes of thick, black smoke rising from a 13-story Gaza residential and office block as it toppled over after being demolished by Israeli airstrikes.

The Israeli military said the building, in Gaza City’s Rimal neighbourhood, housed “multiple” Hamas offices, including ones for military research and development and military intelligence.

The existence of one Hamas office, used by political leaders and officials dealing with the news media, was widely known locally.

Residents in the block and the surrounding area had been warned to evacuate the area before the airstrike, according to witnesses and the Israeli military.

A second residential and office building in the same neighbourhood was heavily damaged in Israeli attacks shortly before 2 a.m. on Wednesday. Residents and journalists working in the building had already left.

On Tuesday Gaza health ministry officials put the death toll at 32, but a Hamas-affiliated radio station later said three more people, including a woman and a child, were killed shortly before 2 a.m. on Wednesday in an Israeli airstrike on an apartment above a restaurant.

Israeli political leaders and the military said they had killed “dozens” of militants, and hit buildings used by Hamas.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz said Israel had carried out “hundreds” of strikes, and that “buildings will continue to crumble.”

Gaza’s health ministry said that of the people reported dead, 10 were children and one was a woman.

Israel’s Magen David Adom ambulance service said a 50-year-old woman was killed when a rocket hit a building in the Tel Aviv suburb of Rishon Lezion, and that two women had been killed in rocket strikes on Ashkelon.

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Erdogan says after Biden talks no Turkey-U.S. problems unsolvable

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Reuters
(Last Updated On: June 15, 2021)

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan sounded upbeat after his first face-to-face talks with Joe Biden, though he announced no major breakthroughs in the awkward relationship between the two allies, at odds over Russian weapons, Syria, Libya and other issues.

Erdogan characterised his talks with the new U.S. president on the sidelines of a NATO summit in Brussels as “productive and sincere”.

“We think that there are no issues within U.S.-Turkey ties, and that areas of cooperation for us are richer and larger than problems,” he said.

Turkey, with the alliance’s second-largest military, has angered its allies in the Western military alliance by buying Russian surface-to-air missiles and intervening in wars in Syria and Libya. It is also in a stand-off with Greece and Cyprus over territory in the Eastern Mediterranean.

As president, Biden has adopted a cooler tone than predecessor Donald Trump towards Erdogan. Biden quickly recognised the 1915 massacre of Armenians as genocide — a position that angers Turkey — and stepped up criticism of Turkey’s human rights record.

Washington has already removed Ankara from the F-35 fighter jet program and imposed sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles.

One area where Erdogan hoped to showcase a central Turkish role in NATO is Afghanistan, where Ankara has offered to guard and operate Kabul airport after U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in coming weeks. NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said Turkey would play a key role but no decision was made at the Monday summit.

At the start of the main leaders’ session at NATO, Biden spoke to Erdogan at length in a small group before they took their seats.

Later in the day, the two leaders and their top aides sat mostly silently on opposite sides of a conference table, ignoring questions shouted to them by journalists briefly invited into the room.

Erdogan also met French President Emmanuel Macron. Ankara and Paris have been at odds over Syria, Libya, and Turkish criticism of the fight against what Macron calls Islamist separatism, among other issues.

“President Erdogan confirmed during our meeting his wish that the foreign mercenaries, the foreign militias, operating on Libyan soil leave as soon as possible,” Macron told a news conference afterwards.

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Israel’s new government begins, Netanyahu era ends

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(Last Updated On: June 14, 2021)

The first Israeli government in 12 years not led by Benjamin Netanyahu got down to business on Monday, with the former prime minister shying away from a handover ceremony with successor Naftali Bennett.

The right-wing leader’s record run in office ended on Sunday with parliament approving, by a razor-thin majority of 60-59, a new administration led by Bennett, a nationalist whose views mirror Netanyahu’s on many issues.

In Tel Aviv, thousands turned out to welcome the result, after four inconclusive elections in two years.

“I am here celebrating the end of an era in Israel,” said Erez Biezuner in Rabin Square.

“We want them to succeed and to unite us again,” he added, as flag-waving supporters of the new government sang and danced around him.

A combative Netanyahu, 71, said he would be back sooner than expected.

“If we are destined to go into the opposition, we will do so with our heads held high until we can topple it,” he told parliament before Bennett was sworn in.

The traditional handover ceremony was not scheduled at the prime minister’s office, where Netanyahu was expected to meet Bennett later on Monday to brief him on state matters.

The last time Netanyahu was unseated as Israel‘s leader, in 1999, he ended his first term in office with a glass of wine in his hand and affable words of welcome to then-Labour party leader Ehud Barak, who defeated him at the polls.

 

“Sour, grumpy, not stately – Trump-like until the final moment,” Yossi Verter, a political affairs commentator, wrote in the left-leaning Haaretz newspaper.

Asked why there would be no such scene now, Topaz Luk, a senior aide to Netanyahu, told Army Radio: “That’s just what happens.”

Netanyahu, he said, was “filled with motivation to topple this dangerous government as quickly as possible”. Luk declined to disclose Netanyahu’s comeback strategy, pointing only to the new administration’s slim margin of support in parliament.

Luk said the incoming government was receiving briefings from Netanyahu’s diplomatic and security advisers to ensure an orderly handover.

After holding its first meeting late on Sunday, Bennett’s new cabinet was invited for a traditional group photograph, showcasing incoming governments, at the official residence of President Reuven Rivlin.

With little in common other than a desire to unseat Netanyahu, the patchwork coalition of right-wing, centrist, left-wing and Arab parties largely plans to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button issues such as policy towards the Palestinians, and to focus instead on domestic reforms.

Palestinians were unmoved by the change of administration, predicting that Bennett, a former defence chief who advocates annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, would pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.

Under the coalition deal, Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and high-tech millionaire, will be replaced as prime minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a popular former television host.

U.S. President Joe Biden congratulated Bennett and Lapid, saying he looked forward to strengthening the “close and enduring” relationship between the two countries.

Addressing parliament on Sunday, Bennett put Biden on notice that he would follow in Netanyahu’s footsteps in opposing any U.S. return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal abrogated by former President Donald Trump.

Netanyahu was Israel‘s longest-serving leader, and had served consecutive terms as prime minister since 2009.

He used his global stature to resist calls for Palestinian statehood, describing it as a danger to Israel‘s security. He sought to bypass the Palestinian issue by forging diplomatic deals with regional Arab states, on the back of shared fears of Iran and its nuclear programme.

But he was a divisive figure at home and abroad, weakened by repeated failure to clinch a decisive election victory, and by a corruption trial in which he has denied any wrongdoing.

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Gas pipe explosion kills 12 in China

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(Last Updated On: June 13, 2021)

A gas pipe explosion in a residential community in a central Chinese city killed 12 people and injured 138, state media CCTV reported Sunday.

One hundred-fifty people were evacuated following the deadly accident in the city of Shiyan in Hubei province, it said, of which 37 are critically injured.

The explosion caused a food market building to collapse at 6:30 a.m., local media reported. Footage from CCTV shows wreckage and shattered glass covering the first floor of the collapsed building, where people were having breakfast and buying groceries when explosion happened.

People can be seen walking in a rubble-strewn street between damaged buildings.

Hospitals in Shiyan are asking residents to donate blood, as the injured are still under emergency treatment, CCTV said.

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