Residents of the Gaza Strip were bracing for the possibility of a new round of war on Saturday after two days of “preemptive” Israeli airstrikes against a Palestinian militant group.
israeli war planes visit various sites into the blockaded territory on Friday, part of a surprise operation called “Breaking Dawn” that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said thwarted alleged rocket attacks planned by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
After retaliatory fire from militants, Israel warned on Saturday that its bombing campaign could last a week, in the worst escalation of violence since the 11-day conflict last May.
As exchanges of fire continued and Israel appeared to expand the operation on Saturday, health authorities in the Palestinian coastal enclave said 15 people had been killed by Israeli shelling, including the Islamic Jihad commander for the north. loop, Tayseer Jabari and civilians, including a five-year-old girl and a 22-year-old art student. More than 80 other people were injured.
While sometimes acting independently, the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad is aligned with Hamasthe largest Islamist movement that rules the strip, and both are considered terrorist organizations by most of the international community.
Whether the latest confrontation between Israel and Islamic Jihad will turn into an all-out war largely depends on whether Hamas, still licking its wounds from last year’s war, decides to intervene.
The group has announced its support for Islamic Jihad and said it would also respond to the attacks. “The resistance, with all its weapons and military factions, is united in this campaign and will have the last word,” Hamas officials said in a statement.
Islamic Jihad called the initial Israeli bombardment a “declaration of war,” firing a barrage of at least 100 rockets into southern Israel on Friday night.
There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage, with many rockets intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system, but 13 people were taken to hospital with minor injuries.
Air raid sirens continued to wail in Tel Aviv and southern Israeli towns and cities on Saturday.
The hostilities have left Gazans fearful of what could be the fifth large-scale conflict in the strip since Hamas took control in 2007. Israel and Egypt closed the enclave’s borders soon after, leaving the 2 million area residents dealing with unemployment and crumbling medical infrastructure. and little electricity and clean water for the last 15 years.
On Saturday, dozens of people lined up outside bakeries and grocery stores, while the local power authority, unable to supply fuel to the only power station, closed operations at noon.
Hamed al-Hindi, 33, waited more than an hour to buy bread for his family and elderly parents in central Gaza City. “I don’t know how long this escalation will take and how serious it will be,” he said.
“We couldn’t sleep last night, the sounds of the explosions wouldn’t stop. I took my three children to my room to keep them quiet.”
Lamia al-Bakri, who was leaving a supermarket with several plastic bags, said: “It all happened suddenly and without warning.
“My 10-year-old daughter kept asking me, ‘Could we go to Egypt and live there? I don’t want war, I’m afraid. I don’t want any of us to get hurt.
“I don’t know why these children have to suffer for years,” said the 41-year-old.
The strongest attacks so far hit four residential buildings that the IDF said were linked to Islamic Jihad activity on Saturday afternoon. In each case, the Israeli army warned residents in advance and no casualties were reported.
Another attack on Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and wounding six others. Other strikes largely hit rural areas, targeting what Israel said were rocket launch sites and training camps.
Egypt, which often mediates between Israel and armed groups in Gaza, said it had been told by Israel that Breaking Dawn would be a small-scale attack, but efforts to coordinate a ceasefire have produced no progress so far.
This weekend’s violence comes after days of tension sparked by the arrest of Bassem al-Saadi, the top commander of Islamic Jihad in the occupied West Bank. The IDF has carried out near-night raids into the West Bank since mid-March, in response to a wave of Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli citizens.
While Islamic Jihad did not fire any rockets after Saadi’s arrest, Israel has insisted over the week that the group is seeking revenge and that two units armed with anti-tank missiles pose an imminent threat.
Israel has closed the Erez crossing, used by Palestinians in Gaza to enter Israel, from Tuesday and closed roads and restricted the movement of civilians in southern Israel as a precautionary measure.
Israeli tanks and armored vehicles lined the border on Friday, after the army said it was reinforcing its troops, and its Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reservists if needed.
“Israel is not interested in a broader conflict in Gaza, but it will not be scared either,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech on Friday. “Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who try to harm its civilians.”
The Gaza Strip has been relatively quiet since the war in May last year, which killed 256 people in Gaza and 14 people in Israel.
Israel elected a coalition government a month later that for the first time included members of an independent Arab-Israeli party opposed to escalation with the Palestinians. It also increased the number of work permits for Palestinians in Gaza to enter Israel in a bid to alleviate the strip’s crushing poverty.
The short-lived coalition collapsed in June. The centrist Lapid, the caretaker prime minister, is preparing for elections on November 1 in which he faces pressure from Israel’s right to appear tough on terrorism.