JERUSALEM – The United Nations and Egypt are pressing Israel and militants in Gaza to agree to an immediate ceasefire as both sides exchanged fire for a second straight day, raising fears of a wider conflict that would deepen civilian suffering in the blockaded Palestinian enclave.
The Israeli military carried out airstrikes again on Saturday targeting what it said were members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and locations across the Gaza Strip, killing at least 15 people, including a senior militant commander and a 5-year-old girl, since Friday. At the same time, Palestinian militants have fired hundreds of rockets into the south and center of the country, setting off air raid sirens and sending thousands of Israelis to bomb shelters.
Israel’s advanced defense systems have intercepted most of the rockets that passed into Israeli territory, although one rocket hit a house in the southern city of Sderot on Saturday, causing some property damage. The bombing of Gaza has been far more devastating, especially for civilians. Israel says it only targets militants.
Israel also closed its border crossing with Gaza when tensions rose earlier this week. With no access to diesel fuel shipments, Gaza’s only power plant shut down on Saturday, meaning Gazans will only have about four hours of electricity in the summer heat.
“We have to be fast, because the humanitarian situation will deteriorate in hours, not days. And then the pressure on Hamas [to act] it will start to increase,” said a diplomat familiar with the ceasefire talks, referring to the militant group that controls Gaza.
Islamic Jihad is seeking to “negotiate a way out of the situation,” he added, but noted that the talks have yet to see any significant progress.
Egypt, which shares borders with Israel and Gaza, often helps broker peace between the two neighbors. He played a critical role in brokering a ceasefire after a deadly 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas last year.
“Egypt is conducting intensive round-the-clock contacts to contain the situation in Gaza and work towards a ceasefire,” the Egyptian Foreign Ministry said on Friday night.
So far, the fighting has remained relatively low compared to the May 2021 conflict, which killed more than 250 people in Gaza and at least 12 in Israel. Thousands of buildings were damaged across the Gaza Strip and more than 100,000 Palestinians were displaced, according to the UN
But the Israeli army has mustered 25,000 reservists and says it is ready for at least another week of fighting against Islamic Jihad, whose officials also say no ceasefire is imminent.
The latest round of fighting began on Friday after Israel launched an air campaign against Islamic Jihad in Gaza, describing it as pre-emptive after days of rising tensions with the Iran-backed militant group. Israel says Islamic Jihad was planning imminent attacks. An Israeli military spokesman estimated Friday that the military killed 15 Islamic Jihad fighters.
According to Gaza’s health ministry, the current Israeli campaign has killed at least 15 Palestinians, including a 5-year-old girl, and injured 125. The Israeli military did not respond to a request for comment on civilian casualties.
Tensions between Israel and the militant group rose earlier in the week after Israeli troops arrested an Islamic Jihad leader in the occupied West Bank, where Israel says the group was trying to plan attacks against Israel. Fearing reprisal attacks, Israel closed the border crossing with Gaza and restricted movement to Israeli towns near the enclave.
The Gaza Strip is ruled by Hamas, which the US and much of the international community considers a terrorist group. Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007, triggering a 15-year blockade of the enclave by Israel and Egypt.
Islamic Jihad, a smaller Iranian-backed group whose leadership is based in the Syrian capital, Damascus, led this round of violence. While Islamic Jihad has invited Hamas to join the battle, the latter has yet to do so, according to Israeli and Palestinian officials.
Security analysts said Hamas would prefer to continue to quietly benefit from an Israeli move to ease some restrictions on trade in the impoverished Gaza Strip, even as the militants rebuilt their capabilities from last year’s devastating conflict.
“It seems that the interests are winning over the authorities,” said Daoud Shehab, an Islamic Jihad official.
Israel can claim several successes in its operation so far, having caught Islamic Jihad by surprise, killed a key commander and suffered little damage from the militant group’s missiles, said Michael Milshtein, a former senior Israeli intelligence officer.
“But we don’t have any kind of long-term strategy for the next day. Everyone just wants quiet,” Mr. Milshtein said.
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