Israeli airstrikes flattened homes in Gaza on Saturday and rockets into southern Israel continued, raising fears of an escalation in a conflict that has killed at least 15 people in the coastal strip, Israeli and Palestinian officials say.
The fighting started Friday with Israel’s assassination of a senior commander of the militant Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in a spate of attacks that Israel said were intended to prevent an imminent attack. Among those killed in the strikes are a five-year-old girl and two women.
So far, Hamas, the larger militant group that rules Gaza, has appeared to be on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat limited. Israel and Hamas fought a war barely a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several minor battles over the past 15 years that have cost the two million Palestinian residents of the impoverished area a staggering price.
On Saturday afternoon, Israeli warplanes stepped up strikes with hits on four residential buildings in Gaza City, all sites apparently linked to Islamic Jihad militants. The destruction was the heaviest to date in the current exchange in the densely populated city, but there were no reports of casualties. In any case, the Israeli army warned residents ahead of the attacks.
Another strike on Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and injuring six other people, according to Palestinian officials.
They said that in one of the attacks, following the warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad member. The blast flattened the two-story building, leaving a large debris-filled crater and severely damaging surrounding homes.
Women and children ran out of the area.
“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.
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. With the new disruption, Gaza residents will only be able to get electricity for four hours a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and deepening the area’s chronic power crisis during the peak summer heat.
Israel uses air defense system
Throughout the day, militants from Gaza regularly launched rockets into southern Israel, but there were no reports of casualties. Most of the barrages were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, hit empty areas or came up short in Gaza. Rocket shrapnel damaged the roof of a house in the city of Sderot, but the family was in a shelter.
On Friday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech that “Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but it is also not afraid of it.”
“This government has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempted attacks — of any kind — from Gaza into Israeli territory,” he said. “Israel will not stand idly by when people try to harm its citizens.”
The violence is an early test for Lapid, who took on the role of interim prime minister ahead of the November election, when he hopes to keep his position.
Almost no reconstruction since the last war
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 at around 50 percent. Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the territory since their takeover by Hamas in 2007.
Egypt on Saturday stepped up its efforts to prevent escalation and communicate with Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to prevent Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
Israel says 15 dead were fighters
The Palestinian health ministry estimated the death toll at 15 and said more than 80 were injured. The ministry made no distinction between civilians and militants. According to the Israeli army, according to early estimates, about 15 fighters were killed.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza was rooted in the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the area. A teenage Islamic Jihad member was also killed in a shootout.
Israel then closed roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, where it warned of retaliation. On Friday, it killed Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, Taiser al-Jabari, in an attack on an apartment building in Gaza City.
An Israeli military spokesman said the attacks were in response to a “imminent threat” from two militant squadrons armed with anti-tank missiles.
Other Israeli attacks struck at night largely on the outskirts of Gaza City or in rural areas, targeting what Israel believes were rocket launchers, rocket building sites and Islamic Jihad camps.
UN envoy calls for end to missile launches
UN special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said: “Missile launches must cease immediately and I call on all parties to avoid 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 50 miles of the border.
Hamas defeated rival faction Fatah in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in early 2006 and consolidated its power in Gaza the following year – two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip in 2005.
The Islamist militant group’s most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions rose again earlier this year after a spate of attacks in Israel, almost daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a holy site in Jerusalem.
The Iranian-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.