GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli warplanes struck militant targets in Gaza on Saturday and continued rocket fire into southern Israel, raising fears of an escalation after a wave of Israeli airstrikes in the coastal enclave killed at least 12 people, including a senior official. militant and a 5-year-old girl.
The fighting began with Israel’s assassination of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander in an attack on Friday. So far, the Hamas rulers in Gaza have appeared to remain on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat contained, for now. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller battles in the last 15 years at staggering cost. to the 2 million Palestinian residents of the territory.
Shortly before noon on Saturday, Israeli warplanes stepped up airstrikes. After warning residents via phone calls, warplanes dropped two bombs on the house of an Islamic Jihad member in a residential area of Gaza City, bringing down the two-story structure and severely damaging surrounding homes. Women and children ran from the area and there were no casualties.
“Did he warn us? They warned us with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. She said 15 people lived in the targeted house.
Another airstrike hit a nearby Islamic Jihad site. Gaza militants continued to fire rounds of rockets into southern Israel every half hour, although there were no reports of casualties.
The only power plant in Gaza was halted at noon on Saturday for lack of fuel, as Israel has kept its crossing points into Gaza closed since Tuesday. The closure deepens the chronic energy crisis of the densely populated territory amid peak summer heat. With the new outage, Gazans can get only 4 hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza was sparked by the arrest this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the territory. Citing a security threat, Israel sealed off roads around the Gaza Strip and on Friday killed Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in a targeted attack.
An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.
“This government has a zero tolerance policy for any attempted attack, of any kind, from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech on Friday. “Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who try to harm its civilians.”
“Israel is not interested in a broader conflict in Gaza, but it will not be scared either.” he added she.
The violence poses an early test for Lapid, who has assumed the role of interim prime minister. ahead of the November elections, when he hopes to retain his position.
Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has a background in diplomacy having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has few security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could polish his position and give him a boost when he takes on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country through three of his four wars with Hamas.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle just a year after the last war caused widespread devastation. There has been almost no reconstruction since then, and the isolated coastal territory is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%.
Egypt has stepped up efforts to prevent an escalation, reaching out to Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to prevent Hamas from joining the fight, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were among the 12 killed in Gaza, along with more than 80 wounded. It did not differentiate between civilians and militants. The Israeli army said initial estimates were that around 15 fighters were killed.
Hundreds marched in a funeral procession for Jihad commander al-Jabari and others who were killed, with many mourners waving Palestinian and Islamic Jihad flags and calling for revenge. Al-Jabari had succeeded another militant killed in an airstrike in 2019which at that time also triggered a round of intense fighting.
Overnight, Israeli media showed the skies over southern and central Israel lighting up with rockets and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. There were no immediate reports of casualties on the Israeli side. Israel said its nightly strikes in Gaza hit rocket launchers, rocket construction sites and Islamic Jihad positions. It also arrested 19 Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank, the army said.
The UN special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said: “The rocket fire must cease immediately, and I call on all parties to prevent further escalation.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reserve soldiers if needed, while the army announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and limits on activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the border.
Israel closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it prepared for a revenge attack after the arrest Monday of Bassam al-Saadi, an Islamic Jihad leader, in a military incursion into the West Bank. busy. A teenage member of the group was killed in a shootout between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.
Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip. His most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions spiked again earlier this year. following a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a Jerusalem holy site.
Iran-backed Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but largely shares its ideology. Both groups oppose Israel’s existence and have carried out dozens of deadly attacks over the years, including firing rockets at Israel. It is unclear how much control Hamas has over Islamic Jihad, and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a strict blockade on the territory since Hamas took power. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from developing its military capabilities. Critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.