GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli fighter jets fired on militant targets in Gaza on Saturday and continued rocket barriers into southern Israel, raising fears of an escalation after a wave of Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclave killed at least 12 people killed, including a senior militant and a 5-year-old girl.
The fighting started with Israel’s assassination on Friday of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in a strike. Gaza’s Hamas rulers have so far appeared to have remained on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat limited for the time being. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several minor battles over the past 15 years at a staggering cost to the 2 million Palestinian inhabitants of the area.
Shortly before Saturday afternoon, Israeli warplanes launched airstrikes. Following telephone warnings from residents, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad member in a residential area of Gaza City, crushing the two-story building and severely damaging surrounding houses. Women and children rushed out of the area and there were no casualties.
“Warned us? They warned us with missiles and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. She said 15 people lived in the targeted house.
Another airstrike hit a nearby Islamic Jihad site. Gaza militants continued to launch rockets into southern Israel about every half hour, although there were no reports of casualties.
The lone power plant in Gaza came to a halt at noon on Saturday due to lack of fuel as Israel has kept border crossings to Gaza closed since Tuesday. The closure deepens the chronic power crisis of the densely populated area amid the peak heat of summer. With the new disruption, Gaza residents will only be able to get electricity for 4 hours a day, making them more dependent on private generators.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza was sparked by the arrest this week of a high-ranking Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the area. Citing a security threat, Israel then closed roads around the Gaza Strip and on Friday killed Taiser al-Jabari, the commander of Islamic Jihad for northern Gaza, in a targeted attack.
An Israeli military spokesman said the attacks were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squadrons armed with anti-tank missiles.
“This government has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempted attacks – of any kind – from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised address on Friday. “Israel will not stand idly by when people try to harm its citizens.”
“Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but will not shy away from it.” he added.
The violence is an early test for Lapid, who took on the role of interim prime minister for the November elections, when he hopes to keep his position.
A centrist former TV host and author, Lapid has experience in diplomacy and has served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has a meager security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could polish his reputation and give him a boost if he takes on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country during three of the four wars with Hamas.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether or not to engage in another battle, barely a year after the last war caused widespread devastation. Since then there has been almost no reconstruction and the isolated coastal area is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%.
Egypt stepped up its efforts to prevent escalation, communicating with Israel, the Palestinians and the US to deter Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to brief the media.
The Palestinian health ministry said a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were among the 12 dead in Gaza, along with more than 80 injured. It made no distinction between civilians and militants. According to the Israeli army, according to early estimates, about 15 fighters were killed.
Hundreds marched in a funeral procession for the Jihad commander al-Jabari and others who were killed, with many mourners waving Palestinian and Islamic Jihad flags and calling for revenge. Al-Jabari succeeded another militant killed in an airstrike in 2019which also started a round of fierce fighting at the time.
Overnight, Israeli media lit up the skies over southern and central Israel with missiles and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. There were no direct reports of casualties on the Israeli side. Israel said its nighttime attacks in Gaza have hit rocket launchers, rocket building sites and Islamic Jihad positions. The army also arrested 19 Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank.
UN special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said: “Missile launches must be ceased immediately and I call on all parties to prevent further escalation.”
Defense Secretary Benny Gantz approved an order to call in 25,000 reserve soldiers if necessary, 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 braced for a revenge attack following the arrest of Islamic Jihad leader Bassam al-Saadi on Monday during a military strike in the occupied West Bank. A teenage member of the group was killed in a firefight between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.
Hamas seized control of 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 rose again earlier this year following a wave of attacks in Israel, almost daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions in a holy site in Jerusalem.
Iran-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 at 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 over the area since the Hamas takeover. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from building its military capabilities. Critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.