GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli warplanes struck militant targets in Gaza early Saturday as rockets rained down on southern Israel, hours after a wave of Israeli airstrikes in the coastal enclave killed at least 11 people, including a senior fighter and a 5-year-old girl.
Fighting that began Friday with Israel’s dramatic targeted killing of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander continued overnight, bringing the sides closer to all-out war.
But the region’s Hamas leaders appeared to remain on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat subdued for now. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller battles in the past 15 years at staggering costs to the 2 million Palestinian residents of the region.
The latest round of Israel-Gaza violence was sparked by the arrest this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the region. Citing a security threat, Israel then sealed off roads around the Gaza Strip and on Friday killed the militant leader in a targeted strike.
An explosion was heard in Gaza City, where smoke poured from the seventh floor of a high-rise building. Video released by the Israeli military shows the strikes blowing up three guard towers with suspected militants inside.
In a nationally televised speech on Friday, 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 has taken on the role of interim prime minister ahead of the November election, when he hopes to retain the position.
Lapid, a centrist former TV presenter and author, has experience in diplomacy, having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but weak 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%.
The Palestinian health ministry said a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were among the dead in Gaza, without distinguishing between civilian and militant casualties. The Israeli military said initial estimates were that about 15 fighters were killed. Dozens were injured.
Islamic Jihad said Taiseer al-Jabari, its northern Gaza commander, was among the dead. He had succeeded another fighter who was killed in an airstrike in 2019. This triggered a heavy round of clashes between Israel and the militant group.
An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “immediate threat” from two groups of militants armed with anti-tank missiles. The spokesman, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity, said al-Jabari was deliberately targeted and was responsible for “multiple attacks” on Israel.
Hundreds marched in a funeral procession for him and others killed, with many mourners waving Palestinian and Islamic Jihad flags and calling for revenge.
Israeli media showed the skies over southern and central Israel lit up with rockets and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. It was not immediately clear how many rockets were fired and there were no immediate reports of Israeli casualties.
Overnight, Israel struck rocket launchers, missile manufacturing facilities and Islamic Jihad positions. It also arrested 19 Islamic Jihad fighters in the West Bank, the military said.
The UN special envoy for the region, Tor Wennesland, said: “The rocket fire must stop immediately and I call on all sides to avoid further escalation.”
After the initial Israeli strikes, a few hundred people gathered outside the morgue at Gaza City’s main Shifa hospital. Some went in to identify their loved ones and came out later in tears.
“May God avenge the spies,” shouted one, referring to Palestinian informants working with Israel.
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.
Israel closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it prepared for a retaliatory attack after the capture of Islamic Jihad leader Bassam al-Saadi on Monday in a military raid in the occupied West Bank. A teenage member of the group was killed in a clash between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.
Hamas seized power in the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. The most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions flared again earlier this year after a wave of attacks inside Israel, almost daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a holy site in Jerusalem. Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, speaking to Iran’s Al-Mayadeen television network, said “Palestinian resistance fighters must stand together to face this aggression.” He said there would be no “red lines” and blamed the violence on Israel.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that “the Israeli enemy, who started the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and bear full responsibility for it.”
Iran-backed Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but shares much of its ideology. Both groups oppose Israel’s existence and have carried out dozens of deadly attacks over the years, including firing rockets into 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 region since the Hamas takeover. Israel says the shutdown is necessary to prevent Hamas from developing its military capabilities. Critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.