Israeli airstrikes flattened homes in Gaza on Saturday and rocket fire into southern Israel continued, raising fears of an escalation in a conflict that has killed at least 15 people in the coastal strip.
The fighting began after Israel killed a senior commander of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad inwhich Israel said were intended to prevent an imminent attack. A 5-year-old girl and two women are among those killed in the strikes.
So far, Hamas, the largest militant group that rules Gaza, has appeared to remain on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat subdued. Israel and Hamas fought a war just a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several smaller battles over the past 15 years that have taken a staggering toll on the impoverished region’s 2 million Palestinians.
Whether Hamas continues to stay out of the fray likely depends in part on how much punishment Israel inflicts on Gaza as the rocket fire continues steadily.
Israel’s military said an errant rocket fired by Palestinian militants killed civilians, including children, in the northern Gaza town of Jambaliya late Saturday. The military said it investigated the incident and concluded “without doubt” that it was caused by mistaken fire by Islamic Jihad. There was no official Palestinian comment on the incident.
A Palestinian doctor, who was not authorized to brief the media and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the explosion killed at least six people, including three children.
Earlier on Saturday, Israeli warplanes stepped up raids with strikes on four residential buildings in Gaza City, all locations apparently linked to Islamic Jihad militants. The destruction was the heaviest to date in the current interchange within the densely populated city, but there were no reports of casualties. In each case, the Israeli military warned residents before the strikes.
Another strike on Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and injuring six other people.
In one of the strikes, after warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad member. The explosion flattened the two-story structure, leaving a large crater full of debris and severely damaged nearby homes.
Women and children ran out of the area.
“They warned us? They warned us with rockets and we left without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. He said 15 people lived in the targeted home.
Gaza’s only power plant shut down at noon on Saturday due to a lack of fuel, as Israel has kept crossing points to Gaza closed since Tuesday. With the new outage, Gazans can only have 4 hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and deepening the region’s chronic electricity crisis amid the height of the summer heat.
Throughout the day, Gaza militants regularly fired rounds of rockets into Israel. The Israeli military said Saturday night that nearly 450 rockets were fired, of which 350 reached Israel, but almost all were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Two people suffered minor shrapnel injuries.
A rocket was fired toward Tel Aviv, setting off sirens that sent residents to shelters, but the rockets were either intercepted or fell into the sea, the military said.
Sunday could be a critical day in the outbreak as Jews mark Tisha B’av, a somber day of fasting that recalls the destruction of the biblical temples. Thousands are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and Israeli media reported that Israeli leadership is expected to allow lawmakers to visit a key hilltop holy site in the city that has been a flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
On Friday night, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised address that “Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but it will not avoid such a conflict either.”
“This administration has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempted attacks — of any kind — from Gaza into Israeli territory,” he said. “Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who seek to harm its civilians.”
The violence is an early test for Lapid, who has taken on the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of November elections, when he hopes to retain the post.
Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has experience in diplomacy having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has thin security credentials. A clash with Gaza could brighten his position and give him a boost as he faces former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country through three of its four wars with Hamas.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to engage in a new battle just a year after the last war caused widespread destruction. Since then there has been almost no rebuilding and the isolated coastal region is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%. Israel and Egypt have maintained a strict blockade on the region since Hamas took over in 2007.
Egypt on Saturday stepped up efforts to prevent an escalation, contacting Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to prevent Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health put the death toll at 15 and said more than 80 were injured. The ministry did not distinguish between civilians and combatants. The Israeli military said initial estimates were that about 15 fighters were killed.
The latest round of Israel-Gaza violence was rooted in the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the region. A teenage member of Islamic Jihad was also killed in the clash.
Israel then closed roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, warning of retaliation. On Friday, it killed Islamic Jihad’s commander for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in an attack on an apartment building in Gaza City.
An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “immediate threat” from two groups of militants armed with anti-tank missiles.
Other Israeli strikes overnight largely hit the outskirts of Gaza City or rural areas, targeting what Israel said were rocket launchers, rocket manufacturing sites and Islamic Jihad camps.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz authorized an order to call up 25,000 reservists if needed, while the military announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and restrictions on activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip. The most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions flared again earlier this year after a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a holy site in Jerusalem.
The Iranian-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 into Israel.