The most violent escalation in more than a year between Israelis and Gaza militants extended into a second day on Saturday, with airstrikes that destroyed residential buildings and killed five people in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials.
The Israeli military said it hit two homes in Gaza belonging to members of the Islamic Jihad militant group which it described as weapons depots. Military officials said warnings were given and residential buildings were evacuated before the strikes.
Islamic Jihad and other smaller Palestinian militant groups in Gaza fired rockets mostly at Israeli towns closer to the edge of the territory.
The renewed tensions underscored the challenge of preventing flare-ups in Israel and the occupied territories when both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are divided and politically weak, international attention is elsewhere and there is little hope of ending the 15-year blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel and Egypt.
“There is no end to this cycle, and no actor seems willing to construct a more stable alternative,” said Professor Nathan J. Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University.
This round of fighting, which began on Friday with Israeli airstrikes, has mainly pitted Israel against Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in Gaza. Hamas, the dominant militia in Gaza, has so far stayed away from direct involvement, raising hopes that the conflict will not escalate into a larger war. However, no ceasefire appeared imminent, despite early mediation efforts by foreign diplomats and the United Nations.
The five Palestinians killed Saturday brought the death toll in two days to 15, according to health officials in Gaza. One of those killed on Friday was a 5-year-old girl.
Gaza’s only power plant shut down due to a freeze on fuel deliveries from Israel, further reducing power to large parts of the territory.
The fighting began on Friday when Israel launched pre-emptive airstrikes to prevent an imminent attack by Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Earlier in the week, Israel had arrested a senior Islamic Jihad official in the West Bank, leading to threats of retaliation from the group. Israel said its airstrikes were aimed at preventing the group from following through on those threats.
An airstrike on Friday killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza and prompted the group to fire back with several rockets and mortars that sent thousands of Israelis to bomb shelters Friday night.
Since the 11-day war in May last year, Israel has persuaded militias in Gaza to refrain from violence by offering 14,000 work permits to Palestinian workers in the territory – the highest since Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007.
About two million people live in Gaza, and most receive no immediate benefit from the new permits. But the permits provide a critical financial lifeline to thousands of families in the enclave, where nearly one in two are unemployed and only one in 10 have immediate access to clean water, according to UNICEF. Complex medical care is often not available.
Wary of losing that concession, particularly while still rebuilding military infrastructure damaged in the last war, Hamas has avoided a major escalation in Gaza all year while still encouraging unrest and violence in Israel and the West Bank.
But Islamic Jihad, which, unlike Hamas, does not rule Gaza, is less motivated by small financial concessions.
Rockets and other projectiles fired from Gaza hit at least two Israeli towns on Saturday, injuring at least two soldiers and a civilian, according to Israeli officials and news reports. However, the majority of Palestinian rockets either landed in open areas or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, according to the Israeli military.
The escalation is at least the sixth increase in violence in the strip since Hamas took control in 2007, prompting Israel and Egypt to begin their blockade. Israel is unwilling to end the blockade while Hamas is in power, and Hamas does not recognize Israel and refuses to end its armed activities.
In the absence of a formal peace process to end the conflict, repeated rounds of violence in Gaza, as well as intermittent bursts of back-channel diplomacy, are seen as alternative ways to renegotiate the terms of the Gaza blockade.
“Absent something more lasting, both sides resort to violence not to defeat the other side – much less to eliminate it – but simply to adjust terms and also to play to home audiences,” said Mr. Brown, the Middle East expert.
This escalation in Gaza can be linked to a recent escalation of violence in Israel and the West Bank several months ago.
Increasing Palestinian attacks on civilians in Israel in April and May led to an increase in Israeli raids in the West Bank, particularly in areas where Israeli officials said the attackers and their collaborators came from.
The Israeli campaign has led to almost nightly arrests across the West Bank in recent months, culminating in the arrest this week of Bassem Saadi, a senior Islamic Jihad operative.
The escalation was also a reminder of Iran’s long shadow over Israeli and Palestinian affairs. While Tehran’s nuclear program is seen by Israel as the biggest threat, it also exerts regional influence by providing financial and logistical aid to proxy fighters across the Middle East, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza.
Providing support to Palestinian militant groups allows Tehran to destabilize Gaza, the West Bank and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, analysts said. This may distract Israel from acting on other fronts, including Iran-linked targets in Syria or Iran itself.
Israel’s opening strikes in Gaza came while Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala was visiting Tehran to meet with the group’s Iranian patrons – a factor that may have contributed to the group’s refusal to back down on its threat to retaliate against Israel’s capture campaign in the West Bank.
“Because of their complete dependence on the Iranians, they have to do what the Iranians tell them,” said Kobi Michael, a national security expert at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
The crisis was a first major test for Yair Lapid, Israel’s interim prime minister, who took office last month after his predecessor’s government collapsed.
The military operation is a dangerous game for Mr. Lapid, a centrist often derided for his lack of security experience by his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who now leads the opposition.
The escalation gives Mr Lapid a chance to prove his security credentials to the Israeli electorate, but also leaves him open to accusations that he is endangering the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.
In Gaza, mourners were already counting the cost of the escalation and lamenting the loss of life.
Relatives of Alaa Qadoum, the 5-year-old girl killed in an airstrike on Friday, wrapped her body in a white shroud and Palestinian flags, displayed pictures, leaving her face uncovered to allow mourners to kiss her before her burial on Friday . A bright pink bow tied most of her hair back.
Israel has in the past blamed militants for civilian deaths, saying they often place their rocket launchers and bases near civilian homes and infrastructure.
At a briefing for international journalists at a military base near the Gaza border in late July, senior Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with army rules, presented maps showing the routes of what they said were parts of a network fighter tunnels. including sections running down streets around a major university in Gaza.
The length and scope of the fighting will depend in part on the involvement of Hamas.
Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas’ politburo, said Friday that the group is “open in all directions.” On Saturday, he said he spoke with mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations.
But on Saturday, an Israeli army spokesman, Ran Kotsav, told Israel Public Radio that the fighting would last at least a week.
Raja Abdulrahim, Carol Sutherland and Fady Hanona contributed to the report.