Israeli airstrikes on Saturday flattened homes in Gaza and Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel continued for a second day, raising fears of another major escalation in the Middle East conflict.
Gaza’s health ministry said 24 people have been killed in the coastal strip so far, including six children.
The fighting started Friday with Israel’s assassination of a senior commander of the militant Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in a spate of attacks that Israel said were intended to prevent an imminent attack. Among those killed in the strikes are a five-year-old girl and two women.
So far, Hamas, the larger militant group that rules Gaza, has appeared to be on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat limited. Israel and Hamas fought a war barely a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several minor battles over the past 15 years that have cost the two million Palestinian residents of the impoverished area a staggering price.
Children killed in errant rocket fire
The Israeli military said an errant rocket fired by Palestinian militants late Saturday killed civilians, including children, in the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya. The military said it has investigated the incident and concluded “without doubt” that it was caused by an error on the part of Islamic Jihad. There was no official Palestinian comment on the incident.
A Palestinian medical worker, who was not authorized to inform the media and spoke to The The AU Times on condition of anonymity, said the explosion killed at least six people, including three children.
Another strike Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and injuring six other people, according to Palestinian officials.
They said that in one of the attacks, following the warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad member. The blast flattened the two-story building, leaving a large debris-filled crater and severely damaging surrounding homes.
Women and children ran out of the area.
“Warned us? They warned us with missiles 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 senior commander of Islamic Jihad, according to Gaza’s health ministry. It also said more than 200 people were injured. It makes no distinction between civilians and hunters. The Israeli military said on Friday that early estimates were that about 15 fighters were killed.
The lone power plant in Gaza came to a halt at noon on Saturday due to lack of fuel as Israel has kept border crossings to Gaza closed since Tuesday. With the new disruption, Gaza residents will only be able to get electricity for four hours a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and deepening the area’s chronic power crisis during the peak summer heat.
Israel uses air defense system
Throughout the day, militants from Gaza regularly launched rockets at Israel. The Israeli military said on Saturday night that nearly 450 rockets had been fired, 350 of which reached Israel, but nearly all were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Two people sustained light shrapnel.
A rocket barrage was fired towards Tel Aviv, setting off sirens sending residents to shelters, but the rockets were either intercepted or fell into the sea, the military said.
Sunday could be a critical day in the flare-up as Jews celebrate Tisha B’av, a gloomy fast day that commemorates the destruction of the biblical temples. Thousands are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and Israeli media reported that Israeli leadership is expected to allow lawmakers to visit an important hilltop holy site in the city that is a flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Almost no reconstruction since the last war
On Friday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech that “Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but it is also not afraid of it.”
The violence is an early test for Lapid, who took on the role of interim prime minister ahead of the November election, when he hopes to keep his position.
A centrist former TV host and author, Lapid has experience in diplomacy and has served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has a meager security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could polish his reputation and give him a boost if he takes on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country during three of the four wars with Hamas.
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 at around 50 percent. Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the territory since their takeover by Hamas in 2007.
Egypt on Saturday stepped up its efforts to prevent escalation and communicate 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 latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza was rooted in the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the area. A teenage Islamic Jihad member was also killed in a shootout.
Israel then closed roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, where it warned of retaliation. On Friday, it killed Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, Taiser al-Jabari, in an attack on an apartment building in Gaza City.
An Israeli military spokesman said the attacks were in response to a “imminent threat” from two militant squadrons armed with anti-tank missiles.
Other Israeli attacks struck at night largely on the outskirts of Gaza City or in rural areas, targeting what Israel believes were rocket launchers, rocket building sites and Islamic Jihad camps.
The Israeli military said on Saturday night that nearly 450 rockets had been fired by militants from Gaza, 350 of which reached Israel, but nearly all were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Two people sustained light shrapnel.
UN envoy calls for end to missile launches
UN special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said: “Missile launches must cease immediately and I call on all parties to avoid further escalation.”
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 50 miles of the border.
Hamas defeated rival faction Fatah in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in early 2006 and consolidated its power in Gaza the following year – two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip in 2005.
The Islamist militant group’s most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. 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.
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 firing rockets at Israel.
The US State Department said on Saturday that Washington fully supported Israel’s right to defend itself, urging all parties to avoid further escalation.