Israeli airstrikes razed homes in Gaza on Saturday and rocket barrages in southern Israel persisted, raising fears of an escalation in a conflict that Israeli and Palestinian officials say has killed at least 15 people in the Strip coastal.
The fighting began with Israel’s killing of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in a wave of strikes on Friday that Israel said were aimed at preventing an imminent attack. A five-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 two million Palestinian residents.
On Saturday afternoon, 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, Palestinian officials said.
They said that in one of the strikes, after the 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.
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 four hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and deepening the territory’s chronic electricity crisis amid peak summer heat.
Israel uses an air defense system
Throughout the day, militants in Gaza regularly launched rockets into southern Israel, but no casualties were reported. Most of the barrages were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, hit in empty areas or did not reach Gaza. Rocket shrapnel damaged the roof of a house in the town of Sderot, but the family was in a shelter.
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.
Almost no reconstruction since the last war
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 virtually no reconstruction and the isolated coastal territory has been plunged into poverty, with an unemployment rate 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.
Israel says 15 killed were fighters
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 a “imminent threat” of 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.
UN envoy calls for end to rocket launches
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 communities within 80 kilometers of the border.
Hamas defeated the rival Fatah faction 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 Islamic militant group’s most recent war with Israel took place in May 2021. Tensions soared again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside 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 rocket fire into Israel.