GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel launched a wave of airstrikes in Gaza on Friday, killing at least 10 people, including a senior fighter, and wounding dozens, according to Palestinian officials. Israel said it was targeting the Islamic Jihad militant group in response to an “imminent threat” after another senior fighter was arrested in the occupied West Bank earlier this week.
Palestinian militants fired a barrage of rockets hours later as air raid sirens blared in central and southern Israel, pushing the two sides closer to all-out war. Islamic Jihad claimed to have fired 100 rockets.
Israel and Gaza’s Hamas military leaders have fought four wars and several smaller battles over the past 15 years at staggering cost to the region’s 2 million Palestinian residents.
An explosion was heard in Gaza City, where smoke billowed from the seventh floor of a high-rise building on Friday afternoon. Video released by the Israeli military shows strikes blowing up three guard towers with suspected militants inside.
In a nationally televised speech Friday night, 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.”
He also added that “Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but it will not avoid one either.”
The violence is an early test for Lapid, who has taken on the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of November elections, in which he hopes to retain the post. He has experience in diplomacy, having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but his security credentials are weak.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join 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.
Islamic Jihad said Taiseer al-Jabari, its northern Gaza commander, was among the dead. He had succeeded another fighter killed in an airstrike in 2019. 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. An explosion was heard in Tel Aviv. It was not immediately clear how many rockets were fired and there was no immediate word on any casualties from the Israeli side.
Israel continued to strike other targets on Friday, including weapons production facilities and Islamic Jihad positions.
The UN’s special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said he was “deeply concerned about the continued escalation” and expressed regret over the killing of the 5-year-old girl.
“Continued escalation is very dangerous,” he said. “The missile firing 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 inside to identify their loved ones, came out later in tears. “May God avenge the spies,” shouted one, referring to Palestinian informants working with Israel.
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.
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 had 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.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the militant group seized power in the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. The most recent was in May 2021, and tensions flared again earlier this year after a wave of attacks in Israel, almost daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a holy site in Jerusalem.
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.”
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, while critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.
Mohammed Abu Selmia, director of Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, said hospitals faced shortages after Israel imposed a complete shutdown on Gaza earlier this week. He said there were enough supplies and essential medicines to sustain hospitals for five days in normal times, but that with a new round of fighting underway, “they could run out at any moment”.
Israel halted an expected delivery of fuel to Gaza’s only power plant, which was expected to shut down early Saturday if fuel did not enter the ground. Even when the plant is operating at full capacity, Gazans still endure daily power outages lasting several hours.
Earlier on Friday, several hundred Israelis demonstrated near the Gaza Strip to demand the return of the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas.
The protesters were led by the family of Hadar Goldin, who along with Oron Shaul were killed in the Gaza war in 2014. Hamas still holds their remains, as well as two Israeli citizens who were adrift in Gaza and believed to be mentally ill. hoping to exchange them for some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Israel says no major moves to lift the blockade can be made until the soldiers’ remains and captured civilians are released. Israel and Hamas have held several rounds of Egyptian-brokered talks on a possible swap.
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