Relentless rocket fire and rioting in mixed Jewish-Arab towns fuelled growing fears Wednesday that violence between Israel and Palestinians that has claimed 55 lives could spiral into "full-scale war".
Palestinian militants have launched more than 1,000 rockets since Monday, said Israel's army, which has launched hundreds of air strikes on Hamas and other Islamist groups in the crowded costal enclave of Gaza.
The most intense hostilities in seven years have killed at least 43 people in Gaza, including 13 children, two Palestinians in the West Bank, and five Israelis, triggered by weekend unrest at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is sacred to both Muslims and Jews.
As world powers voiced growing alarm and the UN Security Council readied for another emergency meeting on the bloody crisis, the UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland warned that "we're escalating towards a full-scale war".
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a state of emergency in the mixed Jewish-Arab Israeli city of Lod, where police said "wide-scale riots erupted among some of the Arab residents".
Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad have launched more than 1,000 rockets, Israel's army said, including hundreds at Tel Aviv, where air sirens wailed overnight.
Of these, 850 rockets have hit in Israel or been intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome air defence system, while the rest have crashed inside Gaza, the army said.
Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes at Gaza, the Israeli-blockaded strip of two million people that Hamas controls, targeting what the army described as Palestinian military sites.
At least 230 Palestinians have been wounded, many rescued from the smouldering ruins of buildings. On the Israeli side, more than 100 people have been injured, as residents across Israel have been ordered to seek shelter.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged both sides to "step back from the brink" and to "show restraint".
The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, voiced concern at the escalation and said "crimes" may have been committed.
Bensouda announced in March that she had opened a full investigation into the situation in the Israeli-occupied territories, infuriating Israel, which not a member of The Hague-based court.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz warned that "this is just the beginning" of Israel's strikes, vowing that the operation, now dubbed "Guardian of the Walls", would aim to restore peace "for the long-term".
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh threatened to step up its operation code-named "Sword of Jerusalem", warning that "if Israel wants to escalate, we are ready for it".
Israeli army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said he expected the fighting to intensify and, when asked about unconfirmed reports that Hamas might seek a ceasefire, said: "I don't think my commanders are aware, or particularly interested."
Israel also started a crackdown on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli troops shot dead two Palestinians in separate clashes, near Nablus and near Hebron, the Palestinian health ministry said.
In Gaza City, people sifted through debris after an Israeli air strike destroyed a 12-storey building near the coast.
Hamas said the tower block had been a residential building. AFP reporters said it also housed the offices of several Hamas officials.
Five members of a single family were killed by an Israeli strike in northern Gaza Tuesday, including young brothers Ibrahim and Marwan, who were filling sacks of straw at the time.
"We were laughing and having fun when suddenly they began to bomb us. Everything around us caught fire," their cousin, also called Ibrahim, told AFP.
"I saw my cousins set alight and torn to pieces," said the 14-year-old, breaking down in tears.
In Israel's central city of Lod, a man and a girl were killed Wednesday by rocket fire from Gaza. Israel's foreign ministry identified one of the dead as 16-year-old Nadin Awad, an Arab Israeli.
Her cousin, Ahmad Ismail, told public broadcaster Kan that he was near Nadin when she was killed alongside her father Khalil Awad, 52.
"I was at home, we heard the noise of the rocket. It happened so quickly. Even if we had wanted to run somewhere, we don't have a safe room," said Ismail.
An Israeli woman was killed when rockets hit Rishon Letzion near Tel Aviv's southern outskirts. In Ashkelon, a town near Gaza which Hamas threatened to turn into "hell", rockets fired by militants killed two women Tuesday.
The crisis started last Friday when weeks of Israeli crackdown on by Israeli riot police on crowds of Palestinians at Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa mosque, on the last Friday of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The crackdown since then have rocked the ancient compound and flared elsewhere in east Jerusalem, leaving more than 900 Palestinians injured, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent.
The unrest has been driven by anger over the looming evictions of Palestinian families from the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah.
Large protests have been held in solidarity with Palestinians around the world, including in London, as well as in Muslim-majority countries including Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Tunisia and Turkey.
Palestinian demonstrators gather during an anti-Israel protest over tension in Jerusalem, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El near Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank, on May 12, 2021. AFP
NEW YORK, NY - MAY 11: Protesters demanding an end to Israeli aggression against Palestine march in the street in Midtown Manhattan on May 11, 2021 in New York City. Recent violence between the Israeli military and Palestinians in Jerusalem has left dozens dead as activists around the world denounce attacks on the city's Al-Aqsa Mosque. AFP
The facade of a religious school is seen torched in the central Israeli city of Lod, near Tel Aviv, on May 11, 2021, following night clashes between Arab Israelis and Israeli Jews amid a dramatic escalation between Palestinians and Israelis sparked by unrest at Jerusalem's flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. AFP
Israeli police forcibly detain a Palestinian outside of the Damascus Gate to the Old City of Jerusalem Tuesday, May 11, 2021. A confrontation between Israel and Hamas sparked by weeks of tensions in contested Jerusalem escalated Tuesday as Israel unleashed new airstrikes on Gaza while militants barraged Israel with hundreds of rockets. AP
*This story was edited by Ahram Online.