Israeli security forces struggled to quell worsening communal violence in its cities as the military stepped up its assault in Gaza against Palestinian militant group Hamas.
Jews and minority Israeli Arabs fought each other in several Israeli towns overnight as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to quell the rioting with “a lot of force”.
The worst domestic unrest in years escalated with a soldier beaten in Jaffa, a police officer shot in Lod and another synagogue set on fire, according to Israeli media. Outbreaks of mob violence were reported around the country as large groups of Israeli Arabs and Jewish men defied curfews.
The clashes between Israeli citizens came as the military added tanks and artillery to its five-day air campaign against Hamas. The military operation has killed 119 Palestinians, including 38 women and children, according to health officials in Gaza.
“We are dealing with a campaign on two fronts — in Gaza [and] in Israel’s cities,” Netanyahu said late on Thursday.
An Israeli military spokesmen told reporters in the early hours that ground troops had moved into Gaza, but he later clarified that none had entered the impoverished strip of 2m people.
Israel had positioned additional troops — including two infantry brigades and one armoured — near the Gaza border and called up 9,000 additional reservists on Thursday.
The troop movement raised speculation that Israel was planning its first invasion of Gaza since its 2014 war with Hamas. Israeli military officials have said they are preparing for all scenarios, including a potential ground offensive, but had not yet taken a decision on whether to invade.
Since the 2014 war, Israel has been reluctant to send troops into Gaza, in part for fear of its soldiers being kidnapped.
Despite the Israeli bombardment, Hamas continued to fire rockets deep into Israel overnight, directing hundreds more at Tel Aviv, Ashdod and one much further south that landed near an airport close to the Red Sea, where incoming international flights had been rerouted.
The militant group has fired more than 1,500 rockets into Israel since Monday. Seven Israelis, including a soldier and a child, have been killed.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has for more than a decade been dominated by fighting between Israeli forces and Palestinian factions in the occupied territories. But the communal violence inside Israel has added a dangerous new dynamic and exacerbated the crisis.
Israeli Arabs account for about one-fifth of the Jewish state’s population, carry Israeli passports and vote in the country’s elections. But they say they suffer from institutional and social discrimination and their sympathy for the Palestinian cause has made them a target for rightwing Israeli politicians.
Several thousand Israeli police have been moved from the occupied West Bank to Israeli cities as part of efforts to stem the violence.
Speaking in Lod, a mixed Arab-Jewish town near Tel Aviv that has seen the worst of the Jewish-Arab fighting, Netanyahu vowed that the security services would be given a free hand to use force to put down the domestic riots, telling the forces not to worry about “commissions of inquiry, investigations and checks”.
“You have the backing, do not be concerned,” he said. “In putting down rioters one needs to use force, a lot of force.”
The prime minister said he was considering approving the use of administrative detentions, commonly used in the occupied West Bank to detain Palestinians for long periods without access to lawyers, and bringing in the army. That raised fears among Arab Israelis that they could face the same harsh measures Israel has used against Palestinians in occupied territories.
“The intelligence that we have says that it could very well be that we will have an upsurge of violence here in the coming days,” Netanyahu said. “Right now we have no greater threat than these disturbances.”
Israel’s Channel 12 News reported that police had blamed Itamar Ben-Gvir, a hard-right member of the Knesset for “this intifada”, or uprising, by showing up in areas where security forces were trying to quell Arab-Israeli violence, and issuing incendiary statements and starting clashes with Arabs. Ben-Gvir’s office did not return a telephone call seeking comment.
The communal violence has underscored the religious tensions that triggered the latest crisis. Weeks of stand-offs have persisted between Palestinians and Israeli riot police in the compound of al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.
Israeli police stormed the compound, which is sacred to both religions, at least three times in the past week, using rubber bullets, tear gas and stun grenades. At least 600 Palestinians were injured.
Hamas stepped into the fray on Monday, firing long-range rockets after earlier demanding that Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem stop harassing Arab residents who were awaiting eviction orders from Israeli courts. Israel responded with hundreds of air strikes on Gaza, including 600 Hamas military targets, according to Israel’s military.
The Gaza Strip is down to about five hours of electricity a day, after Israel closed a goods-crossing checkpoint earlier this week, said an Israeli security official. It will probably run out of fuel by Sunday, he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In an attempt to choke Hamas Israel has imposed a blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007, later joined by Egypt. The blockade is described as a siege by Palestinians.