GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli jets hit militant targets in the Gaza Strip on Saturday, while rocket strikes in southern Israel continued, raising fears of escalation after a wave of Israeli air raids on a coastal enclave that killed at least 12 people including an older fighter and a 5-year-old girl.
The fighting began with the assassination by Israel of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander during Friday’s strike. The Hamas rulers in Gaza appear to have kept themselves aloof from the conflict, keeping the intensity of the conflict for the time being. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller battles in the past 15 years at a staggering price up to 2 million inhabitants of Palestine.
Shortly before noon on Saturday, Israeli combat planes intensified the air strikes. After alerting residents on telephone calls, fighter jets dropped two bombs on an Islamic Jihad member’s home in a residential area of the city of Gaza, flattening the two-story structure and severely damaging nearby houses. Women and children ran out of the area and there were no casualties.
“He warned us? They warned us with rockets and we escaped without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. She said there were 15 people living in the target house.
Subsequent raids hit the nearby site of Islamic Jihad. Gaza militants continued firing missiles into southern Israel approximately every half hour, although there were no reports of casualties.
The lone power plant in Gaza stopped at noon on Saturday due to a lack of fuel, as Israel is closing its border crossings to Gaza on Tuesday. The shutdown exacerbates the chronic energy crisis in densely packed territory in peak summer heat. With the new disruptions, Gazans can only get 4 hours of electricity a day, increasing their dependence on private generators.
The latest round of Israel-Gaza violence was triggered by the arrest this week of a high-ranking leader of the Islamic Jihad in the West Bank as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the territory. Citing the security threat, Israel then sealed the roads around the Gaza Strip, and on Friday killed the Islamic Jihad commander in northern Gaza, Taiser al-Jabari, in a targeted attack.
An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “looming threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.
“This government has a zero-tolerance policy against any attempted attacks – of any kind – from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a television speech on Friday. “Israel will not sit idle when there are those who try to harm its civilians.”
“Israel is not interested in the wider conflict in Gaza, but neither will it avoid it.” he added.
Violence is an early test for Lapid, who has assumed the role of the prime minister’s janitor ahead of the elections in November, when he hopes to maintain his position.
Lapid, the centrist former TV presenter and author, has diplomatic experience as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has poor security credentials. The conflict with Gaza could strengthen his position and give him strength as he confronts former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the security hawk who led the country during three of the four wars with Hamas.
Hamas also faces the dilemma of engaging in a new battle just one year after the last war caused extensive damage. Reconstruction has hardly taken place since then, and isolated coastal areas are mired in poverty with unemployment at around 50%.
Egypt stepped up efforts to prevent an escalation by communicating with Israel, the Palestinians and the US to stop Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to inform the media.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health said a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were among 12 killed in Gaza and more than 80 were injured. He did not distinguish between civilians and fighters. The Israeli military said some 15 fighters were killed according to early estimates.
Hundreds marched in a funeral procession for the commander of the jihad al-Jabari and others killed, and many mourners waved Palestinian and Islamic jihadist flags and called for vengeance. Al-Jabari replaced another fighter killed in the 2019 raid.which at that time also triggered a round of heavy fighting.
During the night, Israeli media showed the skies over southern and central Israel illuminating with missiles and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. There were no immediate reports of casualties on the Israeli side. Israel said its nighttime strikes in Gaza struck rocket launchers, rocket construction sites and Islamic Jihad positions. The military also arrested 19 Islamic Jihad fighters in the West Bank.
The UN special envoy in the region, Tor Wennesland, said: “The missile launch must cease immediately and I urge all sides to avoid further escalation.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved an order to summon 25,000 reserve troops when needed, while the military announced a “special situation” on the internal front, with schools closed and community activity restrictions within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
Israel closed the roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border in preparation for a revenge attack following Monday’s arrest of Bassam al-Saadi, the leader of the Islamic Jihad, during a military raid on the occupied West Bank. A teenage member of the group was killed in a shootout between Israeli troops and Palestinian fighters.
Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel’s withdrawal from the coastal belt. The last war with Israel took place in May 2021. Tensions increased again earlier this year after a wave of attacks in Israel, almost daily military operations in the West Bank, and tensions at the flashpoint of a holy site in Jerusalem.
Iran’s backed Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas, but largely shares its ideology. Both groups oppose the existence of Israel and have carried out dozens of deadly attacks over the years, including firing rockets against Israel. It is unclear how much control Hamas has over Islamic Jihad, and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks from Gaza.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade of this territory since Hamas took power. Israel says the closure is needed to prevent Hamas from building its military capabilities. Critics say the policy comes down to collective punishment.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.