The Palestinian Health Ministry said at least eight people were killed and 44 injured in two initial strikes, one in Gaza City and the other in Khanyounis in southern Gaza. Video posted to social media showed extensive damage to at least one multi-story building.
Among those killed was Tayseer Jabari, a senior Islamic Jihad leader, according to a Palestinian Islamic Jihad statement. A 5-year-old girl was also killed, the ministry said.
The Israel Defense Forces said shortly after the strikes that they were attacking Palestinian Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza in an operation dubbed “Breaking Dawn”. According to Palestinian media, the first strikes targeted leaders of the al-Quds brigades, the armed wing of Islamic Jihad.
An Israeli military spokesman said its planes struck after detecting threatening movements of militant forces and equipment, including anti-tank units. The IDF acted on the expectation that Israeli civilians in the area would be the target of retaliatory attacks and put the center of the country on high alert, he said.
Militants were “flexing and moving very, very close to the border,” Lt. Col. Richard Hecht said. “We took the initiative and we are not finished yet.”
“We assume that there will probably be rocket attacks in the center of the country,” Hecht said.
After Friday’s action, the military warned residents within 80 kilometers of Gaza, including Tel Aviv, to be vigilant for rocket fire and issued an emergency alert that will last at least until to Saturday evening.
Hecht said he had no information on reports that a child was among the victims.
Gaza is ruled by the militant group Hamas, generally seen as a rival to Islamic Jihad. But Hamas condemned the attacks. “The resistance, with all of its arms and military factions, is united in this battle and will speak its word with full force,” the group said in a statement. “It is no longer possible to accept the continuation of this situation as it is.”
The Israeli army sealed checkpoints inside and outside Gaza, closed roads and restricted movement in nearby Israeli communities as tensions soared in recent days. The move sparked complaints from citizens that they were being held hostage to threats from Gaza and sparked calls from Israeli radicals for Israel to act inside the enclave.
“The Israeli government will not allow terrorist organizations from the Gaza Strip to set the agenda in the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of the State of Israel. Anyone who tries to harm Israel should know: we will find you,” Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement after the strikes.
“To our enemies, and especially to the leaders of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, I would like to stress that your time is up,” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said Friday during a visit to the region.
Israeli forces arrested Bassam al-Saadi, an Islamic Jihad leader, after an exchange of fire in the West Bank city of Jenin on Tuesday. A 17-year-old Palestinian was killed in the exchange. Israel said al-Saadi, 62, was coordinating militant activities in an area known for armed resistance.
The exchange marks the most extensive military engagements between the two sides since an 11-day air war a year ago in which more than 250 Palestinians and 13 people inside Israel were killed.
Balousha reported from Gaza City.