THE LEVANT – Israel bombed two Gaza City high-rises with dozens of homes and shops Tuesday, collapsing one building and severely damaging the other in a further escalation of seven weeks of cross-border fighting with Hamas.
In the past, the military has hit targets in high-rises in pinpoint strikes, but left the buildings standing. However, since Saturday, it has toppled or destroyed five towers and shopping complexes in an apparent new tactic aimed at increasing pressure on the Hamas militant group.
The objects of the latest strikes contain apartments inhabited almost exclusively by middle-class Gazans, who up until now have been largely spared the considerable dislocation that has affected tens of thousands of other residents in densely populated neighborhoods of the coastal strip, like Shijaiyah.
That has raised the possibility that the Israeli military is trying to use better-off Gazans, like professionals and Palestinian authority employees, to put pressure on Hamas to end the fighting on Israel’s terms.
Tuesday’s strikes leveled the 15-story Basha Tower with apartments and offices and severely damaged the Italian Complex, built in the 1990s by an Italian businessman, with dozens of shops and offices.
Both buildings were evacuated after receiving warnings of impending strikes. Gaza health official Ashraf al-Kidra said 25 people were wounded in the attack on the Italian Complex.
One resident of the Italian Complex, 38-year-old engineer Nael Mousa, said that he, his four children and 70-year-old mother had managed to flee the building late Monday night after a guard had alerted them of an impending strike, and that he was in his car some 300 meters (yards) away when it was bombed by an Israeli F-16 fighter jet.
Within two hours, he said, it had been completely levelled by at least five additional bombs.
“I have become homeless, my children’s fear will never be soothed, and something new has now been added to our feelings toward Israel and all the world, which has been looking on without doing anything,” he said.
The Israeli military said it targeted sites linked to militants Tuesday, but made no specific reference to the two buildings. Israel alleges Hamas often operates from civilian locations. The military has not said why it has begun collapsing large buildings, rather than carrying out pinpointed strikes against suspected militant targets located there.
In an email message to The Associated Press, military spokesman Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the strikes were “a direct result to Hamas’ decision to situate their terrorist infrastructure within the civilian sphere including schools, hospitals and high-rise buildings.”
He said Israel will not “enable Hamas to continue to kill Israelis, target our towns and cities and expect to operate without consequence to their facilities, militant operatives and the leadership of their heinous attacks against Israel.”
Political scientist Mkhaimar Abu Sada from Gaza’s Al Azhar University said he believed the Israeli tactic was a deliberate attempt to pressure Hamas by targeting middle class structures in neighborhoods like Rimal and Tel al-Hawa, which have so far been spared the worst of the fighting.
He said the tactic will end up creating even greater antipathy toward Israel, but might also result in some tough questions being asked about Hamas’ conduct of the war.
“Some people will now be wondering why Hamas did not accept a cease-fire proposal during the first week of the fighting, when the damage here was still relatively small,” he said.
Retired Israeli air force brigadier general Shlomo Brom, now a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, said he was doubtful that the high-rise structures had been targeted solely because of their middle-class makeups.
“I have no doubt that these buildings were hit primarily because they contained offices or other facilities that belonged to Hamas,” he said.
Also on Tuesday, two people were killed in an airstrike on a house in Gaza City, police said, and the Red Crescent reported that two others died and three were wounded when Israeli tanks opened fire on Shijaiyah, east of Gaza City.
Israel’s military said it carried out 15 air strikes in Gaza on Tuesday.
It said eight rockets were launched from the coastal strip at Israeli territory, including one that caused extensive damage to a home in the southern city of Ashkelon and lightly injured more than a dozen people there.
The latest strikes came as Egypt urged Israel and Hamas to resume indirect talks on a permanent cease-fire, based on an Egyptian proposal for a new border deal for blockaded Gaza.
The Egyptian offer calls for a gradual easing of restrictions on trade and movement in and out of Gaza and would give Hamas’ Palestinian rival, President Mahmoud Abbas, a foothold in the strip.
Hamas seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, triggering the blockade that has been enforced to varying degrees since then.
Israel and Hamas have not responded to Egypt’s latest call.
Gaza’s war has so far killed at least 2,133 Palestinians and wounded more than 11,000, according to Palestinian health officials and the United Nations. The U.N. estimates more than 17,000 homes have been destroyed, leaving 100,000 people homeless.