BEIRUT: Even after she was taken off an investigation into alleged financial crimes by a money transfer company, the defiant Lebanese prosecutor charged ahead.
Ghada Aoun showed up at the company’s offices outside of Beirut with a group of supporters and a metal worker, who broke open the locked gate.
She obtained data from Mecattaf Holding Company that she contends will reveal the identities of people who sneaked billions of dollars out of Lebanon amid the financial meltdown that has hit the country.
The move was part of a public feud between Aoun and Lebanon’s state prosecutor Ghassan Oueidat, who had dismissed her from the case, saying she’d overstepped with two earlier raids.
Their feud has turned into scuffles between their supporters in the street.
Aoun, an investigating judge for the Mount Lebanon district, presents herself as a crusader against corruption and accuses higher-ups of trying to stop her.
But to her critics, she’s a tool of her backer, Lebanon’s president, who they say uses her to punish his political opponents and protect his allies.
That is the problem in Lebanon: The judiciary is so deeply politicized it paralyzes the wheels of justice, mirroring how factional rivalries have paralyzed politics.
Political interference in the judiciary has for years thwarted investigations into corruption, violence and assassinations. But mistrust of the judiciary is thrown into even starker relief now, when Lebanese are crying out for politicians to be held accountable for the disastrous crises in their country — not only the financial collapse but also last August’s massive explosion in Beirut’s port that killed scores and wrecked much of the capital. The explosion has been blamed on incompetence and neglect.
Lebanon’s political posts are split up in a power-sharing system among sectarian-based factions. Judicial appointments are subject to the same sectarian allotment and horse-trading.
Ghada Aoun is a Maronite Christian, like the country’s president, Michel Aoun, and her supporters are mainly members of the president’s Free Patriotic Movement. The two are not related. The state prosecutor, Oueidat, is a Sunni Muslim, like the prime minister-designate, Saad Hariri. The country’s top financial prosecutor is a Shiite Muslim, chosen by the country’s top Shiite factions, Amal and Hezbollah. Positions all through the judicial hierarchy are similarly divvied up.
“Those who hold on to power have set up a judiciary that is loyal to them in order to fight their opponents and protect their interests,” retired state prosecutor Hatem Madi told The Associated Press.
President Aoun and Prime Minister-designate Hariri have been locked in a power struggle that has prevented the formation of a Cabinet for more than six months. As a result, there is no leadership to carry out reforms to rescue the country even as the currency collapses in value.
Lebanese watched in fury as their own savings and salaries plummet in value and prices skyrocket. The central bank is struggling to gather enough hard currency to ensure fuel for electricity or other key imports, much less maintain its longtime peg of the currency to the dollar.
Even more galling for the public, the wealthy and politically connected transferred billions of dollars to safety outside Lebanon even after banks imposed informal capital controls at the beginning of the crisis. Most people have been unable to access their dollars in bank accounts since late 2019.
Ghada Aoun, the judge, was probing Mecattaf Holding on suspicion it helped in that flight of capital. Mecattaf, one of Lebanon’s largest money and gold-trading companies, denied any links to suspicious transfers, saying all business it does is legal.
Skeptics note that Mecattaf’s owner, Michel Mecattaf, is the publisher of Nidaa Al-Watan, a daily newspaper that is harshly critical of President Aoun and his main ally, the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.
Ghada Aoun has also pursued cases against Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh and former Prime Minister Najib Mikati, both of them opponents of the president.
In tweets, Aoun said she was being sidelined “because I dared to open a major file and tried to establish the truth with evidence.” She accuses her opponents of using “false accusations” against her to “politicize a case of justice, a case where an oppressed people wants accountability.”
After her previous raids, Ouiedat ordered her taken off financial cases. Then on April 20, both he and Aoun appeared at a session of Lebanon’s top judicial body, where they upheld the order. Outside, supporters of the president and the prime minister got into scuffles and nearly into fist-fights before the army separated them. The next day, she carried out her third raid on the company.
Sami Kara, a Hariri supporter, said Aoun ruined her long reputation by breaking into the company. “She was used for political purposes and now they threw her away,” said the 61-year-old shop owner.
Lebanese are also closely watching the investigation into the Aug. 4 explosion of nearly 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrates poorly stored at Beirut’s port. The explosion killed 211, wounded more than 6,000 and devastated nearby neighborhoods.
The first investigating judge accused two former Cabinet ministers of negligence, but was then removed from the case after the former ministers raised legal challenges against him. Many worry his replacement, Judge Tarek Bitar, will be prevented by politicians from holding anyone accountable for the blast.
Judges know that if they want senior posts, they must be loyal to a political leader, said Bushra Al-Khalil, a prominent Lebanese lawyer.
Knowing this, some people go straight to politicians and ask for their help in cases, rather than go through judicial authorities, she said. Others hire a lawyer with strong political connections to intimidate judges.
Madi said the long-term solution is for the judiciary to be given independence under the constitution. Currently, it comes under the authority of the government.
Lebanon “is proving incapable of fighting corruption,” said outgoing Justice Minister Marie-Claude Najm, pointing to the divisions demonstrated in the feud between Aoun and Ouiedat.
“After all that has happened,” she said, “how can people feel they respect and trust the judiciary?”
As Lebanese cry for justice, politics paralyzes the system
As Lebanese cry for justice, politics paralyzes the system
- Judge Ghada Aoun presents herself as a crusader against corruption and accuses higher-ups of trying to stop her
- Political interference in the judiciary has for years thwarted investigations into corruption, violence and assassinations
BEIRUT: Even after she was taken off an investigation into alleged financial crimes by a money transfer company, the defiant Lebanese prosecutor charged ahead.
Lebanon spends Eid Al-Fitr under strict quarantine
- Authorities allow only 30 percent capacity at mosques for the Eid prayers as worshippers spread out in the open-air squares in central Beirut
- Religious leader raps errors of government and warns of ‘revolt of the hungry’ during holiday sermon
BEIRUT: Eid Al-Fitr celebrations in Lebanon were very scarce on Thursday as the country was in the middle of a two-day total closure and curfew to combat the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19).
As people avoided gatherings in homes and public places during what is supposed to be a joyous time, one prominent religious leader expressed fear during his Eid sermon.
“People will starve as a result of the errors and sins of the government, and from an explosion or social violence, which will lead to the revolt of the hungry,” said Sheikh Abdel-Latif Derian, grand mufti of Lebanon.
“When this happens, remorse will not be helpful.”
He also accused “political officials of regressing to low levels of violating the constitution, striking the judiciary, resorting to sectarian delusions, and dividing citizens.”
The joy of Eid could not be seen on the faces of the Lebanese people as living conditions continue to deteriorate in a country gripped in financial and political turmoil.
Authorities allowed only 30 percent capacity at mosques for the Eid prayers as worshippers spread out in the open-air squares surrounding the Al-Amin Mosque in central Beirut.
The prayers were led by Sheikh Derian as Lebanon’s caretaker Prime Minister Hassan Diab were among the many who participated in the prayer.
The Israeli-Gaza violence and unrest dominated the Eid sermon, but the political reality and the poor living conditions within Lebanon were also addressed in the sermon from Sheikh Derian.
“The collapse and devastation that we are living through it can only be stopped by the birth of a government that addresses the corruption and decay that Lebanon has seen for the first time in decades,” Mufti Derian said. “We need a government that carries out the required reforms. Anything else counts as deception.”
He also criticized “those working in public political affairs for failing their citizens when they indulged in corruption and prevented the formation of a government capable of stopping the collapse, beginning reconstruction, and seeking help from the international community.”
It was noticeable that the Arab and Islamic diplomatic presence was absent from the central Eid prayer in downtown Beirut.
The Saudi ambassador to Lebanon, Walid Bukhari, performed Eid prayers in the garden of his residence in the Yarze district while a number of ambassadors of Arab and Islamic countries and embassy staff joined him. The embassy took the initial precautionary measures related to the coronavirus.
Measures to remove subsidies on more subsidized food commodities, fuel and medicines added even more concern to a continuing list of hardships experienced by the Lebanese people even before Ramadan.
Many pharmacies closed their doors because owners did not receive the minimum needs of medicine and baby milk from agents and warehouses.
Despite the complete closure, petrol stations remained busy as people fear more fuel shortages.
“The ships that produce power will stop on Saturday, and the factories will follow suit,” Abdo Saadeh, president of the Association of Private Generator Owners, said on Thursday.
“This means that the rationing of electric current in Lebanon may exceed 20 hours. In parallel, there is a shortage of diesel that feeds private generators, which means we are on the verge of a big problem.”
The fuel crisis affects vital sectors in Lebanon, as the secretary-general of the Lebanese Red Cross, Georges Kettaneh, announced that the Red Cross “has prepared a plan to fill its cars with fuel, and there is no crisis yet.”
The head of the Syndicate of Private Hospital Owners, Suleiman Haroun, said: “If Lebanon enters darkness as a result of not providing the funds allocated for the purchase of fuel, many patients in need of oxygen and dialysis machines will be affected.”
Haroun warned that private hospitals have generators, but it is impossible to ask hospitals to supply themselves with electricity 24 hours a day because “these generators are there to support the network and be a substitute for any malfunctions that occur.”
Egypt receives 2.2 mln AstraZeneca and Sinopharm vaccine doses
- The country received its first COVAX delivery of 854,000 AstraZeneca doses at the start of April
- Some 2.7 million people have registered online with the health ministry to receive a vaccine Some 2.7 million people have registered online with the health ministry to receive a vaccine
CAIRO: Egypt has received a batch of over 1.7 million AstraZeneca vaccine doses through the COVAX initiative and a separate shipment of 500,000 Sinopharm vaccine doses from China, the health ministry said on Thursday.
The country received its first COVAX delivery of 854,000 AstraZeneca doses at the start of April. It has also received several shipments of the Sinopharm vaccine, bringing the total number of vaccine doses delivered to 5 million, the health ministry said.
Egypt has an agreement for the supply of 20 million Sinopharm doses, and has been allocated 4.5 million doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine through COVAX.
It is preparing to produce the Sinovac and Sputnik vaccines locally.
Egypt, with a population of just over 100 million, is trying to contain a third wave of COVID-19 infections and the government has put in place some restrictive measures until May 21, shortening opening hours and banning large gatherings.
Some 2.7 million people have registered online with the health ministry to receive a vaccine. Authorities opened a mass vaccination center in Cairo this month capable of vaccinating 10,000 people per day.
Egypt had officially confirmed 240,927 coronavirus cases including 14,091 deaths as of Wednesday.
Officials and experts say the real number of infections is far higher, but is not reflected in government figures because of low testing rates and the exclusion of private test results.
Holy city of Jerusalem marks sad end to Ramadan
- Violence lay heavy on hearts of parents of children dressed in new clothes and clutching balloons reveling to celebrate Eid al-Fitr in Jerusalem’s Old City
- As sun began to break over al-Aqsa mosque crowds of Palestinians gathered for the first prayers to mark Ramadan’s end
JERUSALEM: Dressed in sparkly new clothes and clutching balloons, excited children Thursday revelled in the Muslim Eid Al-Fitr celebrations in Jerusalem’s Old City.
But days of violence lay heavy on their parents’ hearts.
As the first rays of sun began to break over the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, the third holiest site of Islam, crowds of Palestinians gathered for the first prayers to mark the end of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.
The three-day festival is traditionally celebrated with mosque prayers, family feasts and shopping for new clothes, gifts and sweets.
Stalls stacked high with colorful plastic toys, or tasty sesame-dipped snacks that are a Jerusalem specialty, tempted the crowds snaking along the Old City’s narrow stone streets.
At the centuries-old Damascus Gate, scene of violent clashes between Israeli Arabs and police at the start of Ramadan, two huge bundles of helium-filled balloons fluttered in the spring breeze. Mickey Mouse and Spiderman could be spotted bobbing among them.
Just three days ago, Israeli police deployed so-called skunk water there — a putrid mixture of sewage water — to disperse the crowds after a weekend of unrest in different parts of Israeli-occupied east Jerusalem.
Hundreds of Palestinians were injured as well as dozens of Israeli police in the clashes which also erupted on the Temple Mount, the most sacred site in Judaism, on which the Al-Aqsa mosque and the golden Dome of the Rock shrine also stand.
The convulsion of violence has since spread, engulfing the Gaza Strip run by the Islamic militant Hamas movement, the Palestinian territory of the West Bank and Israeli cities which have seen unprecedented mob clashes between Jewish and Arab residents.
On Thursday the boom of rocket fire could be periodically heard in Jerusalem, where calm has mainly returned to the streets. But many believe it may just be the calm before a further storm.
“Do you see any problems, there, right now? No,” said Jabbar, who is in his 60s, pointing at crowds of Palestinians being carefully watched by heavily-armed Israeli police at Damascus gate.
“But it could flare up again at any minute,” he warned grimly.
“Everything will return to normal if God so wishes it,” said Fefka, who lives in the east Jerusalem quarter of Issawiya.
“The violence has to stop, but everything is only done for the settlers here,” she added angrily.
“Jerusalem is also ours,” she insisted, denouncing Israeli settlers who have moved into the east of the city since it was seized in the 1967 war.
According to the United Nations, east Jerusalem has been illegally occupied and annexed by Israel since then.
Hiba, 26, and Soujoud, 21, have been visiting the Al-Aqsa compound since Friday, the day the troubles erupted, triggered by the threat of evicting Palestinian families from their east Jerusalem homes to allow settlers to move in.
“Morning and evening, we stayed at Al-Aqsa,” said Soujoud, a secretarial student. “We don’t want any problems (with the police), but the mosque is ours and we have to defend it,” she added.
On the site, which overlooks the sprawling Old City below, children were entertained by a clown, while adults brandished Hamas flags and rolled out banners praising the Islamist movement.
“Jerusalem is a red line,” read one of the banners.
On Al-Wad Street which crosses the Old City, some passers-by were wearing shirts decorated with Palestinian flags, others had painted them on the cheeks.
Many were wearing the black-and-white chequered keffiyah scarf which has become a symbol of the Palestinian cause.
“We feel very sad for the Eid today, because of the situation and the violence,” said Hiba.
“We can’t be happy when we see what is happening in Gaza and elsewhere.”
Gaza death toll tops 100 as Israeli air strikes, Hamas rocket fire continue
- Palestinian officials say 27 children are among the dead in four days of Israeli bombardment
- Seven people have been killed in Israel, its military said
GAZA/JERUSALEM: Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel’s commercial heartland on Thursday as Israel kept up a punishing bombing campaign in the Gaza Strip and massed tanks and troops on the enclave’s border.
Four days of cross-border fighting showed no sign of abating, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the campaign “will take more time.” Israeli officials said Gaza’s ruling Hamas group must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any cease-fire.
Violence has also spread to mixed communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel, a new front in the long conflict. Synagogues were attacked and fighting broke out on the streets of some towns, prompting Israel’s president to warn of civil war.
At least 103 people have been killed in Gaza, including 27 children, over the past four days, Palestinian medical officials said. On Thursday alone, 49 Palestinians were killed in the enclave, the highest single-day figure since Monday.
Seven people have been killed in Israel: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, five Israeli civilians, including two children, and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.
Worried that the region’s worst hostilities in years could spiral out of control, the United States was sending in an envoy, Hady Amr. Truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations had yet to deliver a sign of progress.
US President Joe Biden called on Thursday for a de-escalation of the violence, saying he wanted to see a significant reduction in rocket attacks.
Militants fired rocket salvoes at Tel Aviv and surrounding towns with the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepting many of them. Communities near the Gaza border and the southern desert city of Beersheba were also targeted.
Five Israelis were wounded by a rocket that hit a building near Tel Aviv on Thursday.
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Three rockets were also fired from Lebanon toward Israel but landed in the Mediterranean Sea, the military said. It appeared to be a show of solidarity with Gaza by Palestinian groups in Lebanon rather than the start of any offensive.
In Gaza, Israeli warplanes struck a six-story residential building that it said belonged to Hamas. Netanyahu said Israel has struck a total of close to 1,000 militant targets in the territory.
Israeli aircraft also attacked a Hamas intelligence headquarters and four apartments belonging to senior commanders from the group, the military said, adding that the homes were used for planning and directing strikes on Israel.
Diplomats said the United States, a close ally of Israel, objected to a request by China, Norway and Tunisia for a public, virtual meeting of the UN Security Council on Friday to discuss the violence.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters such a meeting would be better next week to allow time for diplomacy in hopes of achieving a de-escalation.
Standing beside a Gaza road damaged in Israeli air strikes, Assad Karam, 20, a construction worker, said: “We are facing Israel and COVID-19. We are in between two enemies.”
In Tel Aviv, Yishai Levy, an Israeli singer, pointed at shrapnel that came down on a sidewalk outside his home.
“I want to tell Israeli soldiers and the government, don’t stop until you finish the job,” he said on YNet television.
Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near Al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.
A number of foreign airlines have canceled flights to Israel because of the unrest.
Brig.-Gen. Hidai Zilberman, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said attacks on militants’ rocket production and launching sites were “disrupting Hamas’ activities,” but still not to the point of stopping the barrages.
“It is more difficult for them, but we have to say in fairness that Hamas is an organized group, one that has the capability to continue to fire for several more days at the places it has been targeting in Israel,” he said on Israeli Channel 12 TV.
He said between 80 and 90 militants had been killed in Israeli attacks.
Zilberman said Israel was “building up forces on the Gaza border,” a deployment that has raised speculation about a possible ground invasion, a move that would recall similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and in 2009.
Israeli military affairs correspondents, who are briefed regularly by the armed forces, have said however that a major ground operation is unlikely, citing high casualties among the risks.
Hamas armed wing spokesman Abu Ubaida responded to the troop buildup with defiance, urging Palestinians to rise up.
“Mass up as you wish, from the sea, land and sky. We have prepared for your kinds of deaths that would make you curse yourselves,” he said.
So far some 1,750 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 300 fell short in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said.
The UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said two of its schools were hit on Tuesday and Wednesday “within the context of air strikes by Israel,” and that at least 29 classrooms were damaged.
School is in recess in Gaza, and classes have also been suspended in many parts of Israel, including in one town where an empty school was hit by a rocket on Tuesday.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an “urgent de-escalation” of violence and French President Emmanuel Macron urged a “definite reset” of long-frozen Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also appealed for an end to the fighting.
The hostilities have fueled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21 percent Arab minority who live alongside them in some communities.
Jewish and Arab groups attacked people and damaged shops, hotels and cars overnight. In Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, dozens of Jews beat and kicked a man thought to be an Arab as he lay on the ground.
One person was shot and badly wounded by Arabs in the town of Lod, where authorities imposed a curfew, and over 150 arrests were made in Lod and Arab towns in northern Israel, police said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called for an end to “this madness.”
Although the latest unrest in Jerusalem was the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians are frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state in recent years, including Washington’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
On the Israeli political front, Netanyahu’s chances to remain in power after an inconclusive March 23 election appeared to improve significantly after his main rival, centrist Yair Lapid, suffered a major setback in efforts to form a government.
Israel destroys tower block, kills Hamas commander as Gaza civilian death toll mounts
- At least 56 people in Gaza, including 14 children, two Palestinians in the West Bank
- Six Israelis have also been killed in the ongoing conflict
TEL AVIV: Heavy exchanges of rocket fire and air strikes, and rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab towns, fueled fears Wednesday that deadly violence between Israel and Palestinians could spiral into “full-scale war.”
Israel’s Defense Minister Benny Gantz vowed more attacks on Hamas and other Islamist militant groups in Gaza to bring “total, long-term quiet” before considering a cease-fire.
“This is just the beginning,” warned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “We’ll deliver them blows they haven’t dreamt of.”
Gaza militants have launched more than 1,000 rockets since Monday, said Israel’s army, which has carried out hundreds of air strikes on Islamist groups in the crowded coastal enclave of Gaza.
The most intense hostilities in seven years have killed at least 56 people in Gaza, including 14 children, and six in Israel, including an Israeli soldier and one Indian national, since Monday.
Three Palestinians were killed in West Bank clashes. And at least 230 Palestinians and 100 Israelis have been wounded.
An Israeli soldier was killed on Wednesday when Palestinian militants in Gaza fired an anti-tank missile near the border, the army said, amid tit-for-tat rocket fire and air strikes.
A statement from the army identified the soldier as Omer Tabib, 21, who was “killed this morning by the anti-tank missile launched by the Hamas terror group from Gaza at Israel.”
The bloodshed was triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
As world powers voiced growing alarm over the crisis, the UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland warned that “we’re escalating toward a full-scale war.”
The UN Security Council held another emergency meeting without agreeing on a joint statement due to opposition from the United States, Israel’s ally.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called for an immediate end to violence in Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories that has killed more than 50 people since Monday.
“Everything must be done to prevent a broader conflict, which will, first and foremost, affect the civilian populations on both sides,” Borrell said in a statement that condemned actions by both sides.
France’s foreign minister said the international community must do everything possible to avert a new conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, after Palestinian militants fired hundreds of rockets and the Israeli army launched air strikes.
“The cycle of violence in Gaza, in Jerusalem but also in the West Bank and several cities in Israel risk leading to a major escalation,” Jean-Yves Le Drian told parliament. “Everything must be done to avoid... a conflict” that would be the fourth such deadly confrontation in the last 15 years, he said.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called for an urgent meeting of the Middle East Quartet in order to halt violence between Israel and the Palestinians.
Speaking alongside UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Lavrov said: “Today we’ve come to the common opinion that the most pressing task is to convene the Quartet of international mediators — Russia, the United States, the UN and the EU.”
Sergei Vershinin, a Russian Deputy Foreign Minister, called on Israel to “immediately” stop all settlement activities in the Palestinian Territories, RIA news agency reported.
Vershinin also said that Moscow called for the “status quo of Jerusalem’s sacred sites” to be respected, RIA reported.
China’s special envoy on the Middle East, Zhai Jun, expressed “deep concern” over escalating clashes between Palestinians and Israel and urged all parties to exercise restraint to avoid further casualties.
In a meeting with Arab envoys and the chief representative of the Arab League in China, Zhai said Beijing would continue to push the UN Security Council to take action on the situation in East Jerusalem as soon as possible, according to a foreign ministry statement.
Netanyahu declared a state of emergency in the mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli city of Lod, where police said “wide-scale riots erupted among some of the Arab residents,” and authorities later imposed an overnight curfew there.
There were fears of widening civil unrest as protesters waving Palestinian flags burnt cars and properties, including a synagogue, clashed with Israeli police and attacked Jewish motorists in several Jewish-Arab towns.
Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin, in unusually strong language, denounced what he described as a “pogrom” in which “an incited and bloodthirsty Arab mob” had injured people and attacked sacred Jewish spaces.
Rivlin said Israelis needed “to be ready and armed, strong and determined, prepared to defend our home.”
Palestinian groups, mainly Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have launched more than 1,000 rockets, Israel’s army said, including hundreds at Tel Aviv, where air sirens wailed overnight.
Of these, 850 have hit in Israel or been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, while the rest have crashed inside Gaza, the army said.
Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes on Gaza, the Israeli-blockaded strip of two million people that Hamas controls, targeting what the army described as “terror” sites.
Hamas said several of its top commanders were killed in Israeli strikes, including its military chief in Gaza City, Bassem Issa. Israel’s internal security agency, the Shin Bet, also identified three other top Hamas militants who it said were killed.
Its leader Ismail Haniyeh threatened to step up attacks, warning that “if Israel wants to escalate, we are ready for it.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged both sides to “step back from the brink.”
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said “everything must be done” to avoid a new Middle East conflict.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken said a US envoy would travel to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders to seek “a de-escalation of violence.”
In Gaza City, people sifted through debris after an Israeli air strike destroyed a 12-story building that Hamas had been a residential building. It was also known to house the offices of several Hamas officials.
Five members of a single family were killed by an Israeli strike in northern Gaza Tuesday, including young brothers Ibrahim and Marwan, who were filling sacks of straw at the time.
“We were laughing and having fun when suddenly they began to bomb us. Everything around us caught fire,” their cousin, also called Ibrahim, told AFP.
“I saw my cousins set alight and torn to pieces,” said the 14-year-old, breaking down in tears.
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In Israel’s central city of Lod, a man and a girl were killed Wednesday by rocket fire from Gaza. Israel identified one of the dead as 16-year-old Nadin Awad, an Arab Israeli.
Her cousin, Ahmad Ismail, told public broadcaster Kan that he was near Nadin when she was killed alongside her father Khalil Awad, 52.
“I was at home, we heard the noise of the rocket,” said Ismail. “It happened so quickly. Even if we had wanted to run somewhere, we don’t have a safe room.”
An Israeli woman was killed when rockets hit Rishon Letzion near Tel Aviv. In Ashkelon, a town near Gaza which Hamas threatened to turn into “hell,” rockets fired by militants killed two women Tuesday.
The crisis flared last Friday when weeks of tensions boiled over and Israeli riot police clashed with crowds of Palestinians at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque.
Nightly disturbances have since flared in east Jerusalem, leaving more than 900 Palestinians injured, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
The unrest has been driven by anger over the looming evictions of Palestinian families from the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Large protests have been held in solidarity with Palestinians around the world, including in Britain and South Africa as well as in Muslim-majority countries including Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey.
(With Reuters and AFP)