TEL AVIV — Israeli warplanes pounded targets in Gaza as Palestinian militants launched rocket attacks for a second day in a row on Saturday, bringing an explosive end to relative calm along the border for more than a year.
The Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, said in a statement on Saturday that the airstrikes killed two operatives of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group “who were about to fire mortars from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory.”
The statement added that the IDF “continued to strike terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip,” including a “military training complex and a weapons depot.”
Local media later showed images of huge clouds of smoke and debris appearing in the air as explosions rocked Gaza City.
In a separate statement, the IDF said it, along with other Israeli security forces, arrested 20 suspects on Saturday, 19 of whom it described as “Islamic Jihad terrorist operatives”.
Having earlier claimed responsibility for firing more than 100 rockets at Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities, the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad group, said in a statement that they could “confirm the continuation of fighting”.
Most of the rockets were intercepted and there were no reports of serious casualties, according to the Israeli Ambulance Service.
In a separate statement, Daoud Shehab, a spokesman for Islamic Jihad, said “the current battle will not end in a day or two and will continue to exhaust the occupying entity.” He also said there are no talks between the two sides at the moment.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Palestinian militants was sparked by the arrest this week of senior Islamic Jihad commander Bassam al-Saadi in the West Bank.
The fighting began on Friday as Israel warned residents in phone calls before its warplanes dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad member, leveling the two-story structure in western Gaza City and severely damaging surrounding homes.
The IDF said it had targeted Taiseer al-Jabari, the senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad division in northern Gaza. The Palestinian Ministry of Health later confirmed that Jabari was among the dead.
In a separate statement on Saturday, the ministry said 14 Palestinians, including a child, had died and at least 110 people had been injured since the violence began.
Islamic Jihad is an Iranian-backed group that is smaller than Hamas, which rules Gaza, but shares many of its core demands and ideologies, including refusing to recognize the existence of the state of Israel.
So far, Hamas appears to be staying on the sidelines of the conflict, but Fawzi Barhoum, the group’s spokesman, said in a statement on Friday that Israel “started the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime and must pay the price and bear full responsibility for it.”
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller battles over the past 15 years, causing violence that has disproportionately affected the region’s 2 million Palestinian residents, who are often unable to protect themselves from Israeli strikes.
Barhoum’s comments came after Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country launched the attacks based on “specific threats.
“This administration has a policy of zero tolerance for any attempted attacks – of any kind – from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Lapid said. “Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who seek to harm its civilians.”
“Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but it will not avoid one.” he added.
The violence is an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister in June after the collapse of his predecessor Naftali Bennett’s eight-party coalition.
Citing a security threat, Israel has also sealed off roads around the Gaza Strip and blocked the Nusseirat power plant, which provides electricity to the 2.3 million people living in the coastal enclave.
It has also imposed special security measures in its southern territories near Gaza and is preparing to call in 25,000 troops, according to Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a strict blockade on the Gaza Strip since 2007. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from developing its military capabilities.
Critics, including the United Nations, say the policy amounts to collective punishment of an entire population and deprives Palestinian civilians living in the area of freedom of movement.
Paul Goldman reported from Tel Aviv and Leila Sackur from London.
Associated Press and Reuters contributed.