Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza were once again at war on Wednesday night. A day after peace talks in Cairo crumbled, Israeli air strikes pounded the strip and rockets rained down on Israel.
As the death toll in Gaza rose well above 2,000 on Wednesday, the Israeli prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, compared the Hamas movement in Gaza to the Islamic State (Isis), calling the two groups a “branch of the same tree”.
At a press conference on Wednesday night, Netanyahu said the Gaza war launched on 8 July “will be a continued campaign” aimed at restoring “calm and safety” to Israeli citizens.
He said the latest bout of Israeli military action in Gaza was “the harshest blow Hamas has taken since its foundation”, but warned that if Hamas rocket fire continued, Israel would hit back “sevenfold”. “This is a continuous campaign. The struggle against terror lasts for years,” he said.
The defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, added that Israel “had killed hundreds of Hamas terrorists” and would continue to do so.
The UN security council expressed “grave concern” at the resumption of hostilities and called upon the parties to resume negotiations to urgently reach a “sustainable and lasting ceasefire”.
The 15-member council also “called upon the parties to prevent the situation from escalating and to reach an immediate humanitarian ceasefire”.
A Hamas spokesman said the peace process with Israel was dead, blaming an Israeli strike on a house in Gaza City on Tuesday night, which killed the wife and son of Hamas’s military wing chief, Mohammed Deif.
Israeli media suggested last night that Deif – one of Hamas’s most senior figures and long a target of Israel – may also have been killed in the strike, but an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) spokesman declined to comment and Hamas denied the reports.
Speaking at a press conference in Gaza City, Al Qassam Brigades spokesman Abu Obeida further upped the ante by warning of rocket attacks on Ben Gurion airport on Thursday, calling for airlines to suspend flights from 6am.
He also told Israelis to avoid public gatherings and warned citizens in the country’s south not to leave bomb shelters.
Earlier on Wednesday, hundreds of Palestinians attended the funerals of Deif’s wife, Vidad Asfura, 27, and son, Ali, in Jabaliya camp in northern Gaza.
Hamas had urged Gazans to turn out in force for the funeral, but witnesses said that the thousands-strong crowds, militant presence and gunfire that often mark funerals in Gaza were conspicuously absent.
Hundreds of civilians who had returned to their homes after eight days of relative quiet in Gaza fled back to UN shelters, as Israel called up thousands of reserve troops and massed tanks and armoured personnel carriers on the border. More than 60 Israeli air strikes pummelled Gaza, one killing seven members of the same family in central Gaza.
The increased Israeli military presence in the south raised fears of a repeat of the IDF ground invasion of the strip earlier this month, during which dozens of Israeli soldiers were killed. Hawkish members of the Israeli cabinet on Wednesday repeated calls for an occupation of the Palestinian coastal enclave, which Israel evacuated under Ariel Sharon’s leadership in 2005.
Efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution to the conflict drew to a halt dramatically in Cairo as fire resumed on Tuesday evening, and showed no sign of restarting on Wednesday. Israel withdrew its delegation as soon as violence broke out and Hamas called for the Palestinian delegation to return home.
Israel has blamed Hamas for breaking the ceasefire and triggering a resumption of violence with the firing of three rockets, which landed in open land near the southern city of Beersheba on Tuesday night.
Within an hour, Israel had hit Deif’s home with an air strike – an assault met with a volley of rockets from Gaza, most of which were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system. Sirens sounded over Tel Aviv and Jerusalem for the first time in weeks.
Late on Wednesday, the IDF said around 140 rockets had been fired from Gaza since the breakdown of the talks, one of which hit a house outside Ashkelon.
The Palestinians have blamed Israel for the failure of the truce and the return to violence. The Palestinian Liberation Organisation suggested in a statement that the rocket attack which provoked the Israeli withdrawal could have been manufactured by Israel as an excuse to abandon the talks.
“Israel … alleges that it was responding to three rockets launched from the Gaza districts – which supposedly landed in open areas and caused no deaths, injuries or damage,” the PLO said in a statement.
“This launch has not been confirmed and no Palestinian resistance group has claimed responsibility. Israel has used the alleged rocket fire as a pretext for continuing to target Palestinian civilians.”
The Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, was due to meet the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshaal, in Doha, Qatar, late on Wednesday, as the Palestinian Authority continues to try to steer the peace process. Hamas signed a deal with Fatah in April this year to set up a unity government, and the PA has taken the lead in talks between Israel and Hamas, who refuse to negotiate directly with each other.
With the Sisi government in Egypt hostile to the Islamist leadership in Gaza, Hamas is looking to Qatar for diplomatic support.
Michael Stephens, deputy director at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London, said: “Qatar is basically Hamas’s last ally. Given that Turkey is struggling and failing to insert itself into the process, Doha really is the only game in town.”