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Sole COVID-19 testing lab in Gaza hit by strikes as diplomatic efforts intensify

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GAZA CITY: The United Nations Security Council was due to hold an emergency meeting on Tuesday (May 18) amid a flurry of urgent diplomacy aimed at stemming Israel air strikes that have killed more than 200 Palestinians.

A fireball accompanied by a plume of black smoke erupted over a Gaza building early on Tuesday after the latest Israeli strike, an AFP journalist reported.

Despite growing calls for an end to the bombardment, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late on Monday Israel would “continue striking at the terrorist targets”.

Israel launched its air campaign on the Gaza Strip on May 10 after the enclave’s rulers, Hamas, fired rockets towards the Jewish state, an escalation sparked by unrest in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

In total, Israeli air strikes have killed 212 Palestinians, including 61 children, in Gaza – while rockets fired by Palestinian armed groups have killed 10 people in Israel, including a child, according to officials on both sides.

Over 200 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip since the Israeli air campaign began on May 10
A ball of fire explodes above buildings in Gaza City as Israeli forces shell the Palestinian enclave, early on May 18, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Mahmud Hams)

The Security Council session scheduled for Tuesday is the fourth since the conflict escalated and was called after the United States, a key Israel ally, blocked the adoption of a joint statement calling for a halt to the violence on Monday for the third time in a week.

US President Joe Biden, having resisted joining other world leaders and much of his own Democratic party in calling for an immediate end to hostilities, told Netanyahu on Monday night he backs a ceasefire, but stopped short of demanding a truce.

READ: Under pressure, Biden works for ceasefire in Israel-Gaza violence

Israel continued its barrage of Gaza overnight, setting the night sky over the densely populated coastal enclave ablaze as multiple strikes crashed into buildings in Gaza City shortly after midnight, AFP journalists reported.

The Israeli army said on Tuesday it had struck 65 “targets” inside Gaza overnight, while Palestinian militants had fired 70 rockets, dozens of which were intercepted by air defences.

COVID-19 LAB HIT

Hours before, strikes had knocked out the only COVID-19 testing laboratory in the strip and damaged the office of Qatar’s Red Crescent.

The rate of positive coronavirus tests in Gaza has been among the highest in the world, at 28 per cent.

Hospitals in the poverty-stricken territory, which has been under Israeli blockade for almost 15 years, have been overwhelmed by patients.

The office of Qatar's Red Crescent in Gaza was badly damaged by air strikes
Palestinians gather near a bombed building, housing the Qatari Red Crescent, following an Israeli air strike on Gaza City on May 17, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Mohammed Abed)

Gaza resident Roba Abu al-Awf, 20, was bracing for a rough night.

“We have nothing to do but sit at home,” she said. “Death could come at any moment – the bombing is crazy and indiscriminate.”

Israeli fire has cratered roads and battered crucial infrastructure, causing blackouts and leading the electricity authority Monday to warn it only had enough fuel left to provide power for another two to three days.

READ: Blinken urges Israel, Palestinians to ‘protect civilians’ and children

The conflict risks precipitating a humanitarian disaster, with the UN saying nearly 40,000 Palestinians have been displaced and another 2,500 have lost their homes.

Palestinian militants have fired about 3,350 rockets towards Israel in the heaviest exchange of fire in years.

Hamas has threatened more rocket strikes on Tel Aviv if bombing of residential areas does not stop.

The security crisis risks precipitating a humanitarian disaster, with the UN saying nearly 40,000
Palestinian medics run amidst debris on the ground during Israeli air strikes on Gaza City on May 17, 2021. (Photo: AFP/Mohammed Abed)

Fighter jets also hit what Israeli military calls the “metro”, its term for Hamas’ underground tunnels, which Israel has previously acknowledged run in part through civilian areas.

Rockets were also fired at Israel from Lebanon, where protests against Israel’s Gaza campaign have been held in the border area.

The Israeli army said the six rockets did not reach its territory.

“INTENSIVE DIPLOMACY”

In the West Bank, occupied by Israel since 1967, Palestinian Authority president Mahmud Abbas urged Washington to act against “Israel’s aggression”, in a meeting with US envoy for Israeli and Palestinian affairs Hady Amr, the official Wafa news agency reported.

Even as UN Security Council efforts talks have faltered and the US has been accused of obstructionism, mediation channels are being opened behind the scenes.

READ: US blocks new draft UN statement on Middle East violence

Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan said he had spoken to his Israeli counterpart and the Egyptian government – a key intermediary – on Monday, saying that Washington was engaged in “quiet, intensive diplomacy”.

French and Egyptian presidents Emmanuel Macron and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi are pushing for a ceasefire deal and aim to get the backing of Jordan. Another channel has been opened, via the UN, with the help of Qatar and Egypt.

European Union foreign ministers will also hold urgent talks on Tuesday on the violence, said the bloc’s top diplomat Josep Borrell, who has been conducting “intense” diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the fighting.

The conflict was sparked after clashes broke out at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound – one of Islam’s holiest sites – after Israeli forces moved in on worshippers on May 7.

This followed a crackdown against protests over planned evictions of Palestinians in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of east Jerusalem.

Israel is also trying to contain violence between Jews and Israeli Arabs, as well as unrest in the occupied West Bank, where Palestinian authorities say Israeli forces have killed 20 Palestinians since May 10.

Abbas’ Fatah movement has called for a “day of anger” and a general strike on Tuesday, a call echoed in Arab and ethnically mixed towns inside Israel.

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