Israel conducts airstrike on Gaza, killing 10, including jihadist leader, says Palestine

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel unleashed a wave of airstrikes in Gaza on Friday, killing at least 10 people, including a senior militant, and injuring dozens, according to Palestinian officials. Israel said it targeted the Islamic Jihad militant group in response to an “imminent threat” after the arrest of another high-ranking militant in the occupied West Bank earlier this week.

Palestinian militants hours later launched a barrage of rockets as air raid sirens blared in central and southern Israel, bringing the two sides closer to all-out war. Islamic Jihad claimed to have fired 100 rockets.

The militant Hamas rulers of Israel and Gaza have fought four wars and several minor battles over the past 15 years, at a staggering cost to the area’s 2 million Palestinian residents.

An explosion was heard in Gaza City, where smoke poured from the seventh floor of a high-rise building Friday afternoon. Videos released by the Israeli military show three watchtowers containing suspected militants being blown up.

In a nationally televised address Friday night, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country launched the attacks on the basis of “concrete threats”.

“This government has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempted attacks — of any kind — from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Lapid said. “Israel will not stand idly by when people try to harm its citizens.”

He also added that “Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but is not afraid of it either.”

The violence is an early test for Lapid, who took on the role of interim prime minister ahead of the November election, in which he hopes to maintain his position. He has experience in diplomacy after serving as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but his security credentials are meager.

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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 hovering around 50%.

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The Palestinian health ministry said a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were among the dead in Gaza, without distinguishing between civilian casualties and militant victims. According to the Israeli army, according to early estimates, about 15 fighters were killed.

Islamic Jihad said Taiser al-Jabari, the commander of northern Gaza, was among the dead. He succeeded another militant who was killed in an airstrike in 2019. Hundreds 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 over southern and central Israel lit up with missiles and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. An explosion was heard in Tel Aviv. It was not immediately clear how many missiles were launched and there was no immediate report of any casualties on the Israeli side.

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Israel continued to attack other targets on Friday, including weapons production facilities and Islamic Jihad positions.

The UN special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said he was “deeply concerned about the ongoing escalation” and expressed grief over the murder of the 5-year-old girl.

“The ongoing escalation is very dangerous,” he said. “Missile launches must be stopped immediately and I call on all parties to prevent further escalation.”

After the initial Israeli attacks, several hundred people gathered outside the morgue of Shifa’s main hospital in Gaza City. Some went in to identify loved ones and later emerged in tears. “May God take vengeance on spies,” one shouted, referring to Palestinian informants collaborating with Israel.

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An Israeli military spokesman said the attacks were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squadrons armed with anti-tank missiles. The spokesman, who informed reporters on condition of anonymity, said al-Jabari was deliberately targeted and responsible for “multiple attacks” on Israel.

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 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.

Israel had closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it braced itself for a revenge attack following the arrest of Islamic Jihad leader Bassam al-Saadi on Monday during a military strike in the occupied West Bank. A teenage member of the group was killed in a firefight between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.

Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the militant group seized power in the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. The most recent was in May 2021, and 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.

Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah told Iran’s Al-Mayadeen TV network that “Palestinian resistance fighters must stand together to face this aggression.” He said there would be “no red lines” and blamed Israel for the violence.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that “the Israeli enemy, who started the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and take full responsibility for it.”

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. It is unclear how much control Hamas has over Islamic Jihad, and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks from Gaza.

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Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the area since the Hamas takeover. Israel says the shutdown is necessary to prevent Hamas from building its military capabilities, while critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.

Mohammed Abu Selmia, director of Gaza’s Shifa Hospital, said hospitals faced shortages after Israel imposed a complete closure of Gaza earlier this week. He said there were enough supplies and essential medicines to sustain hospitals for five days in normal times, but that with another round of fighting underway, “they could run out at any moment”.

Israel has canceled an expected fuel delivery for Gaza’s only power plant, which was expected to be shut down early Saturday if the fuel failed to enter the territory. Even when the factory is running at full capacity, Gazans still face daily power cuts lasting several hours.

Earlier Friday, several hundred Israelis protested near the Gaza Strip to demand the return of the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas.

The protesters were led by the family of Hadar Goldin, who was killed along with Oron Shaul in the 2014 Gaza war. Hamas still holds their remains, as well as two Israeli civilians who have strayed into Gaza and are believed to be mentally ill, hoping to exchange them for some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Israel says no major steps can be taken to lift the blockade until the remains of the soldiers and captured civilians are released. Israel and Hamas have held numerous rounds of Egypt-mediated talks over a possible trade.

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