But the territory’s Hamas leaders appeared to be staying on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat contained, for now. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several small battles over the past 15 years at a staggering cost to the territory’s 2 million Palestinian inhabitants.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza was sparked by the arrest this week of a senior Islamic Jihad operative in the West Bank, as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the territory. Citing a security threat, Israel then sealed the roads around the Gaza Strip and killed the militant leader in a targeted strike on Friday.
An explosion was heard in Gaza City, where smoke poured from the seventh floor of a tall building. Video released by the Israeli military showed the strikes blowing up three guard towers with suspected militants inside.
In a nationally televised address on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country launched the attacks based on “concrete threats”.
“This government has a policy of zero tolerance 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.”
“Israel is not interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but will not shy away from it either.” he added.
The violence is an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of the November election as he hopes to retain his post.
Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has a diplomatic background having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has weak security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could improve his position and give him a boost as he takes on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country in three of his four wars with Hamas.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle barely a year after the last war caused widespread devastation. Since then, there has been almost no reconstruction 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 distinguishing between civilian and militant casualties. The Israeli army said early estimates were that around 15 fighters had been killed. Dozens 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. This sparked a series of intense fighting between Israel and the militant group.
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 was 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 above southern and central Israel lighting up with rockets and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. It was not immediately clear how many rockets had been launched, and there were no immediate reports of casualties on the Israeli side.
Overnight, Israel struck rocket launchers, rocket construction sites and Islamic Jihad positions. He also arrested 19 Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank, the army said.
The UN’s special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said: “The launching of rockets must stop immediately, and I call on all parties to avoid further escalation.”
After the first Israeli strikes, a few hundred people gathered outside the morgue of the main Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Some walked in to identify loved ones and came out later in tears.
“May God take revenge on the spies,” one shouted, referring to Palestinian informants who cooperate with Israel.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reserve troops if needed as the military announced a ‘special situation’ on the home front, with schools closed and limits imposed on activities in the 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 prepared for a revenge attack after the arrest on Monday of Bassam al-Saadi, an Islamic Jihad leader, during a a military raid in the occupied West Bank. 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. Tensions soared again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, almost daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions. at a holy site in Jerusalem. Israel withdrew its troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.
Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, speaking to Iran’s Al-Mayadeen TV channel, said “Palestinian resistance fighters must unite to confront this aggression.” He said there would be “no red lines” and blamed the violence on Israel.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said “the Israeli enemy, which triggered the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and take full responsibility.”
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 rocket fire into Israel. Hamas’ degree of control over Islamic Jihad is unclear, 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 building up its military capabilities. Critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.