GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel unleashed a wave of airstrikes on Friday in Gaza, killing at least 10 people, including a high-ranking militant, according to Palestinian officials. Israel said it attacked the Islamic Jihad militant group in response to an “imminent threat” following the recent arrest of another high-ranking militant.
Hours later, Palestinian militants unleashed a barrage of rockets as air-raid sirens blared across Israel and the two sides moved closer to another all-out war. Islamic Jihad claimed to have fired 100 rockets.
Israel and the militant Hamas rulers in Gaza have fought four wars and several minor battles in the last 15 years. at a staggering cost to the 2 million Palestinian residents of the territory.
An explosion was heard in Gaza City, where smoke rose from the seventh floor of a high-rise building. Video released by Israel’s military showed that the strikes blew up three watchtowers with suspected militants on them.
In a nationally televised address, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country launched the attacks based on “concrete threats.”
“This government has a zero tolerance policy for any attempted attack, of any kind, from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Lapid said. “Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who try to harm its civilians.”
He added that “Israel is not interested in a broader conflict in Gaza, but it will not shy away from one either.”
The violence poses an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of interim prime minister ahead of the November elections, when he hopes to retain his position. He has a background in diplomacy, having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but his security credentials are scant.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle just a year after the last war caused widespread devastation. There has been almost no reconstruction since then, and the isolated coastal territory 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 those killed in Gaza, without differentiating between civilian and militant casualties. The Israeli army said initial estimates were that around 15 fighters were killed. Dozens of people were injured.
Islamic Jihad said Taiseer al-Jabari, its commander for northern Gaza, was among the dead. He had succeeded another militant killed in an airstrike in 2019.
An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles. The spokesman, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said al-Jabari was deliberately targeted and that he had been responsible for “multiple attacks” against Israel.
Hundreds of people marched in a funeral procession for him and others who were killed, with many mourners waving Palestinian and Islamic Jihad flags and calling for revenge.
Israeli media showed the skies over southern and central Israel lighting 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 information on casualties on the Israeli side.
Israel continued to attack other targets on Friday, including weapons production facilities and Islamic Jihad positions.
The UN special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said he was “deeply concerned”.
“The rocket fire must cease immediately and I call on all parties to prevent further escalation,” he said.
Following the initial Israeli attacks, a few hundred people gathered outside the morgue of the main Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Some went in to identify their loved ones and then came out crying.
“May God take revenge on the spies,” one shouted, referring to Palestinian informants cooperating with Israel.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reserve soldiers if needed, while the army announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and limits on activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the border.
Israel closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it prepared for a revenge attack after the arrest Monday of Bassam al-Saadi, an Islamic Jihad leader, in a military incursion into the West Bank. busy. A teenage member of the group was killed in a shootout between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.
Hamas seized power in the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. Its most recent war with Israel was in May 2021, and tensions spiked again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a Jerusalem holy site.
Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, speaking to Al-Mayadeen television from Iran, said “Palestinian resistance fighters have to unite to confront 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 largely shares his 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 emanating from Gaza.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a strict blockade on the territory since Hamas took power. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from developing its military capabilities, while critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.
Mohammed Abu Selmia, director of the Shifa hospital, said hospitals faced shortages after Israel imposed a full closure on Gaza earlier this week. He said there were enough essential supplies and medicines to keep hospitals going for five days in normal times, but with a new round of fighting underway, “they could run out at any moment.”
Israel canceled a planned fuel delivery to Gaza’s only power plant, which was expected to shut down early Saturday if fuel did not enter the territory. Even when the plant is running at full capacity, Gazans still experience daily power outages lasting several hours.
Earlier Friday, a couple of hundred Israelis protested 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 was killed in the 2014 Gaza war. Hamas still holds his remains, as well as those of two Israeli civilians who strayed into Gaza and are believed to be suffering from a mental illness, hoping to exchange them for some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Israel says there can be no major moves to lift the blockade until the remains of the captive soldiers and civilians are released. Israel and Hamas have held numerous rounds of Egyptian-mediated talks on a possible swap.
Krauss reported from Ottawa, Ontario. Associated Press reporter Ariel Schalit in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, Israel, and Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report.