Israel fired artillery and mounted more air strikes on Friday against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip amid constant rocket fire deep into Israel's commercial centre. As hostilities entered their fifth day, with no sign of abating, the Israeli military said in a statement shortly after midnight that air and ground forces were attacking the Hamas-run enclave.
Rocket barrages from Gaza swiftly followed. Although the statement gave no further details, Israeli military affairs correspondents who are briefed regularly by the armed forces said it was not a ground invasion, and that troops were firing artillery from Israel’s side of the border.
Residents of northern Gaza, near the Israeli frontier, said they had seen no sign of Israeli ground forces inside the enclave but reported heavy artillery fire and dozens of air strikes.
Thursday’s Muslim festival of Eid al-Fitr, which marks the end of Ramadan, is supposed to be one of the happiest days of the year but for the residents of Gaza the day brought more death and destruction as the conflict with Israel continued with no end in sight.
The conflict fanned flames of hatred in Israel between Jews and Arabs, who make up 20 per cent of the population, leading to the worst communal clashes in the country’s history.
Two Jews were seriously hurt on Thursday night in attacks by Arabs. Violent confrontations erupted in Lod, Acre, Jerusalem, Haifa, Bat Yam, Tiberias and many other locations, with scores of people injured, some of them seriously. More than 400 people were arrested.
Israeli leaders expressed shock and disbelief after hundreds of Jewish extremists in Bat Yam next to Tel Aviv vandalised Arab property and then attacked an Arab driver in his car, dragged him out of the vehicle and beat him savagely while the entire incident was broadcast in real time on television.
In Acre a Jewish driver was critically injured by a crowd of Arabs and Jewish homes and guest houses in the city’s old city were torched and vandalised.
Mr Netanyahu condemned the “anarchy” of the communal clashes while president Reuven Rivlin warned of a civil war between the country’s Arabs and Jews.
In the wider conflict, at least 87 residents of Gaza have been killed, 15 of them children, from Israeli strikes, with hundreds wounded.
In Israel, a five-year-old boy died overnight after a rocket fired from Gaza slammed into his home in the town of Sderot, close to the Gaza border. He was the seventh fatality in Israel.
The current escalation began on Monday with a massive rocket salvo from Gaza aimed at the Jerusalem area, following days of clashes in Israel's capital, including around the Al-Aqsa mosque in the city's old city. Palestinian anger was fuelled by plans to expel residents from the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to make way for Jewish families.
On Thursday night the violence had its first major impact on Israeli politics when Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Yamina party, declared that an alternative coalition to the government of Binyamin Netanyahu was no longer an option. Mr Bennett was slated to serve as prime minister in such a coalition, which would have ended two years of political deadlock.
Mr Bennett argued that the current security situation required the establishment of a broad-based national unity government. It is still not clear if his decision to jettison an alternative coalition means that Israel will go to a fifth election in September.
Israel’s army said that more than 1,600 rockets and mortar shells have been fired towards Israel and the country’s Iron Dome anti-missile defence system has managed to intercept about 90 per cent of the projectiles that were heading towards population centres.
Israel called up an additional 7,000 army reservists on Thursday as reinforcements were sent to the Gaza border.
Israel army spokesman Brig Gen Hidai Zilberman said the military is braced for a further escalation, including the possibility of a ground offensive.
"Anyone who holds a weapon in the Gaza Strip, as far as we are concerned, is a dead man walking. From the first to the last," he said.
Several international airlines have suspended flights to Israel's main Ben Gurion international airport near Tel Aviv because of the hostilities.Other flights have been re-routed to Ramon airport near Eilat in southern Israel to avoid rocket fire near Tel Aviv.