Israel rocked by communal violence as crisis escalates

Israel reeled from its worst outbreak of communal violence in years as western and regional powers stepped up diplomatic efforts to end the conflict between Palestinian militants and Israeli forces.

The violence between Jews and Arabs erupted in several Israeli towns, shaking the country as the conflict between Israel and Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, entered its fourth day. 

Hamas fired salvos of rockets deep into Israel on Thursday, causing Israeli authorities to reroute international flights from Tel Aviv, while Israel kept up its barrage of air strikes against Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Hamas launched its longest-range rocket ever, dubbed the Yahya Ayyash, which flew 250km across Israel and landed near Ramon airport, where flights had been redirected. 

Israel has positioned additional troops — including two infantry brigades and one armoured — near the Gaza border. “No order has been given to execute a ground operation by the chief of the general staff,” said Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an army spokesman. “But military preparations are indeed under way.”

With no let-up in the violence, Egyptian officials were attempting to broker a ceasefire, a western diplomat said. Hady Amr, the US state department’s top official on Israel and Palestinian affairs, was also on his way to Israel as part of the Biden administration’s attempts to de-escalate the crisis.

Russian president Vladimir Putin and UN secretary-general António Guterres also called for an end to the fighting on Thursday. After a joint call between the pair, they said in a statement that “ending violent actions from both sides and ensuring the security of the civilian population is the top priority”, a Kremlin readout of their call said.

But the western diplomat said Israel had previously rejected efforts by Egypt, which shares borders with Israel and Gaza, to halt the fighting. 

As the death toll mounted, with at least 87 people killed in Gaza and seven Israelis, unrest in mixed Israeli towns escalated through Wednesday night, with Arabs and Jews clashing and rioting. 

Defence minister Benny Gantz has called up police reserves, saying the “massive reinforcement” was needed to help stop riots. The order came after prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested he would deploy the military to quell the communal violence. 

“We have seen Arab rioters set fire to synagogues and vehicles and attack police officers — it is anarchy,” Netanyahu said, while urging Jews to respect the law. “You cannot take the law into your own hands. You cannot grab an ordinary Arab citizen and try to lynch him — just as we cannot watch Arab citizens do this to Jewish citizens.”

Overnight on Wednesday, groups of rightwing Jews took to the streets of Arab neighbourhoods, including in Lod, Haifa, Acre and Jaffa, where they almost beat to death a man they mistook as an Arab. The incident was caught on a live news broadcast.

Arab protesters also took to the streets, triggering confrontations with Jews. Yair Revivo, the mayor of Lod, where most of the violence took place, compared it to a “civil war”.

Israeli Arabs account for about a fifth of the Jewish state’s population, carry Israeli passports and vote in the country’s elections. But they complain of institutional and social discrimination. Their sympathy for the Palestinian cause has made them a target for right-wing politicians, who often deride them for being supporters of terrorism.

The communal violence has underscored the religious tensions that triggered this bout of fighting. There have been weeks of stand-offs between Palestinians and Israeli riot police in the compound of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Israeli police stormed the compound, which is sacred to both religions, at least three times in the past week, using rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades. At least 600 Palestinians were injured.

Hamas stepped into the fray on Monday, firing long-range rockets after it had earlier demanded that Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem stop harassing Arab residents who were awaiting eviction orders from Israeli courts. Israel responded with hundreds of air strikes on Gaza, including 600 Hamas military targets, according to Israel’s military.

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