Israeli warplanes bombed new targets in Gaza and Palestinian militants fired back despite attempts to broker a ceasefire – as an annual day of Palestinian grief at Israel begins.
The Nakba, or “catastrophe”, is one of the most sombre dates of protest in the Palestinian calendar. It marks the day after the creation of the state of Israel on 14 May 1948, a move that led to hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fleeing or being expelled from the country.
This year, Nakba day is expected to be particularly tense, coming as Israelis and Palestinians engage in their worst clashes in years and with street unrest rising in mixed Jewish-Arab neighbourhoods across Israel stirring fears of a descent into civil war.
Anti-Israeli protests also erupted in the occupied West Bank on Friday, prompting Israeli forces to open fire, killing 11 people.
In addition, pro-Palestinian demonstrations took place at Israel’s borders with neighbouring Jordan and Lebanon, while three rockets were reportedly fired towards Israel from Syria.
The Israel-Palestinian hostilities are now in their sixth day.
According to Palestinian health officials, 132 people have died in Gaza, an enclave controlled by the Palestinian group Hamas, including 31 children and 20 women.
On the Israeli side, the death toll stands at eight, including two children and a soldier.
Diplomatic efforts to stop the bloodshed are intensifying.
A US envoy, Hady Amr, arrived in Israel on Friday. The US embassy in Jerusalem said the aim was “to reinforce the need to work towards a sustainable calm”.
Egypt, which has influence over Hamas, is playing a key role – as it has in the past – in trying to negotiate a halt to the fighting.
Qatar, Jordan and the United Nations are also important players.
“The talks have taken a real and serious path on Friday,” a Palestinian official was quoted by the Reuters news agency as saying.
“The mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are stepping up their contacts with all sides in a bid to restore calm, but a deal hasn’t yet been reached.”
An Egyptian intelligence official said Israel had turned down an Egyptian proposal for a one-year ceasefire that Hamas had accepted, according to the AP news agency.
The United Nations Security Council is due to discuss the crisis for the first time publicly on Sunday. Diplomats have already held a number of closed-door sessions since the bombardments by both sides began on Monday.
The violence was sparked by tensions in Jerusalem over efforts by Jewish settlers to evict a number of Palestinian families from their homes in an east Jerusalem neighbourhood, and by clashes between Israeli police and Palestinians at a revered mosque in the Old City.
On Friday night, online video showed young Jewish nationalists firing pistols as they traded volleys of stones with Palestinians in the disputed Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood.
Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip continued into early Saturday, followed by a salvo of Hamas rockets towards Israel.
The exchanges came after the heaviest barrage of Israeli tank and artillery fire, combined with airstrikes, overnight into Friday that pummelled the Palestinian enclave.
The Israeli military said that they had been going after a network of tunnels used by Hamas. But the onslaught wreaked destruction in some towns, killed a family of six in their house and sent thousands fleeing their homes.
Houda Ouda said she and her extended family ran frantically into their home in the Gaza town of Beit Hanoun, seeking safety as the earth shook in the darkness.
“We even did not dare to look from the window to know what is being hit,” she said.
The Israeli Defence Forces has said Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a fellow Palestinian militant group, have fired more than 2,000 rockets from Gaza towards Israel since the start of the hostilities – an unprecedented volume of strikes.
More than 400 rockets are said to have fallen short into Gaza, while many more were blasted out of the sky by Israeli air defence systems. However, some did impact.
Across central and southern Israel, from small towns bordering Gaza to metropolitan Tel Aviv and southern Beersheba, Israelis have adjusted to sirens wailing, radio and TV broadcast interruptions and the beeps on their mobile phones of red alerts that send them rushing for cover.
For its part, the Israeli military said they have hit some 1,000 targets in Gaza, including rocket launch sites, individual commanders and the tunnel network.