Israeli airstrikes leveled homes in Gaza on Saturday and rocket barrages in southern Israel persisted, raising fears of an escalation in a conflict that has killed at least 24 people in the coastal strip.
The fighting began with Israel’s assassination of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group inwhich Israel said were aimed at preventing an imminent attack. A 5-year-old girl and two women are among those killed in the strikes.
So far, Hamas, the largest militant group that rules Gaza, has seemed to remain on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat contained. Israel and Hamas fought a war just a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several small battles in the past 15 years that have taken a huge toll on the impoverished territory’s 2 million Palestinian residents.
Whether Hamas will continue to steer clear of the fight likely hinges in part on the depth of sanctions Israel imposes on Gaza as rocket fire continues steadily.
The Israeli army said a rocket fired by Palestinian militants killed civilians Saturday night, including children, in the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya. The army said it investigated the incident and concluded “without any doubt” that it was caused by a failure on the part of Islamic Jihad. There was no official Palestinian comment on the incident.
A Palestinian medical worker, who was not authorized to brief the media and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the blast killed at least six people, including three children.
Earlier Saturday, Israeli warplanes stepped up strikes on four residential buildings in Gaza City, all locations apparently linked to Islamic Jihad militants. The destruction was heaviest yet in the current exchange in the densely populated city, but no casualties were reported. In each case, the Israeli army warned residents before the strikes.
Another strike on Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and injuring six others.
In one of the strikes, after warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the house of an Islamic Jihad operative. The blast flattened the two-story structure, leaving a large crater filled with rubble and severely damaging surrounding homes.
Women and children rushed out of the area.
“Warned us? They warned us with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. She said 15 people lived in the targeted house.
Among the 24 Palestinians killed were six children and two women, as well as the top commander of Islamic Jihad. Gaza’s health ministry said more than 200 people were injured. It does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. The Israeli army said on Friday that initial estimates indicated that around 15 fighters had been killed.
Gaza’s only power station shut down at noon on Saturday due to lack of fuel as Israel closed its crossings into Gaza on Tuesday. With the new disruption, Gazans can only get 4 hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and worsening the territory’s chronic electricity crisis amid peak summer heat.
Throughout the day, militants in Gaza regularly launched rockets into Israel. The Israeli military said on Saturday evening that nearly 450 rockets were fired, of which 350 hit Israel, but nearly all of them were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Two people were slightly injured by shrapnel.
A barrage of rockets was fired towards Tel Aviv, triggering sirens that sent residents to shelters, but the rockets were intercepted or fell overboard, the military said.
Sunday could be a critical day in the surge, as Jews mark Tisha B’av, a somber day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of biblical temples. Thousands of people are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and Israeli media have reported that Israeli leaders are to allow lawmakers to visit a key hilltop holy site in the city that is a hotbed of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
On Friday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised address that “Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but it will not shy away from it either.”
“This government has a policy of zero tolerance for any attempted attack – of any kind – from Gaza into Israeli territory,” he said. “Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who try to harm its civilians.”
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 remote coastal territory is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%. Israel and Egypt have maintained a strict blockade on the territory since the Hamas takeover in 2007.
Egypt stepped up efforts to prevent the escalation on Saturday, communicating 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.
The Palestinian Health Ministry reported 15 dead and more than 80 injured. The ministry did not distinguish between civilians and militants. The Israeli army said early estimates were that around 15 fighters had been killed.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza stemmed from the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad official in the West Bank, as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the territory. A teenage Islamic Jihad member was also killed in a shootout.
Israel then closed the roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, warning of retaliation. On Friday, he killed Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in a strike on a building in Gaza City.
An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.
Overnight, other Israeli strikes largely hit the outskirts of Gaza City or rural areas, targeting what Israel said were rocket launchers, rocket construction sites and Islamic Jihad camps.
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 communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip. Its most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions soared again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-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 rocket fire into Israel.