Israel and Gaza exchange fire after deadly strikes

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli jets pounded militant targets in Gaza on Saturday and barrages of rockets in southern Israel have persisted, raising fears of escalation after a wave of Israeli airstrikes on the he coastal enclave has killed at least 12 people, including a senior activist and a 5-year-old girl.

The fighting began with Israel killing a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander in a strike on Friday. Hamas leaders in Gaza so far seemed 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 in the past 15 years at staggering cost to the 2 million Palestinian inhabitants of the territory.

Shortly before noon on Saturday, Israeli warplanes intensified their airstrikes. After warning residents by telephone, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad operative in a residential area of ​​Gaza City, flattening the two-story structure and severely damaging surrounding homes. The women and children rushed out of the area, and there were no casualties.

“Told us? They tipped us off with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. She said 15 people lived in the targeted house.

Another airstrike hit a nearby Islamic Jihad site. Gaza militants continued to launch rockets into southern Israel approximately every half hour, although no casualties were reported.

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. The shutdown worsens the densely populated territory’s chronic electricity crisis amid peak summer heat. With the new disruption, Gazans can only get 4 hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators.

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 on Friday killed Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in a targeted strike.

An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.

“This government has a policy of zero tolerance for any attempted attack – of any kind – from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said Friday in a televised address. “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 has assumed the role of caretaker prime minister before the November elections, where he hopes to keep his job.

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%.

Egypt has stepped up its efforts to prevent the escalation, 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 brief the media.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were among the 12 killed in Gaza, along with more than 80 injured. He made no distinction between civilians and militants. The Israeli army said early estimates were that around 15 fighters had been killed.

Hundreds marched in a funeral procession for Jihad commander al-Jabari and others who were killed, with many mourners waving Palestinian and Islamic Jihad flags and calling for revenge. Al-Jabari had succeeded another militant killed in an airstrike in 2019which at the time also sparked a series of heavy fighting.

Overnight, Israeli media showed the sky over southern and central Israel lighting up with rockets and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. No casualties were immediately reported on the Israeli side. Israel said its overnight strikes in Gaza hit 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.”

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 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.

Iran-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.

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Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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