Israel and Gaza militants exchange fire after deadly strikes
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli airstrikes flattened homes in Gaza on Saturday and rocket barrages into southern Israel persisted, raising fears of an escalation in a conflict that has killed at least 15 people in the coastal strip.
The fighting began with Israel's killing of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in a wave of strikes Friday that Israel said were meant to prevent an imminent attack. A 5-year-old girl and two women are among those killed in the strikes.
So far, Hamas, the larger militant group that rules Gaza, appeared to stay on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat contained. Israel and Hamas fought a war barely a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several smaller battles over the last 15 years that wreaked a staggering cost to the impoverished territory's 2 million Palestinian residents.
Whether Hamas continues to stay out of the fight likely depends in part on how much punishment Israel inflicts in Gaza as rocket fire steadily continues.
On Saturday afternoon, Israeli warplanes stepped up strikes with hits on four residential buildings in Gaza City, all locations apparently linked to Islamic Jihad militants. The destruction was the heaviest yet in the current exchange within the densely packed city, but there were no reports of casualties. In each case, the Israeli military warned residents ahead of the strikes.
Another strike Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and wounding six other people.
In one of the strikes, after the warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the house of an Islamic Jihad member. The blast flattened the two-story structure, leaving a large rubble-filled crater, and badly damaged 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 home.
The lone power plant in Gaza ground to a halt at noon Saturday for lack of fuel as Israel has kept its crossing points into Gaza closed since Tuesday. With the new disruption, Gazans can get only 4 hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and deepening the territory's chronic power crisis amid peak summer heat.
Throughout the day, Gaza militants regularly launched rounds of rockets into southern Israel, but there were no reports of casualties. Most barrages were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile-defense system, hit in empty areas or fell short into Gaza. Rocket shrapnel damaged the roof of a home in the city of Sderot, but the family was in a shelter.
On Friday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech that "Israel isn't interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but will not shy away from one either."
"This government has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempted attacks — of any kind — from Gaza towards Israeli territory," he said. "Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who are trying to harm its civilians."
The violence poses an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of elections in November, when he hopes to keep the position.
Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has experience in diplomacy having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has thin security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could burnish his standing and give him a boost as he faces off against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country during three of its 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. There has been almost no reconstruction since then, and the isolated coastal territory is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%. Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the territory since the Hamas takeover in 2007.
Egypt on Saturday intensified efforts to prevent escalation, communicating with Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to keep Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The Palestinian Health Ministry put the toll at 15 killed and said more than 80 were wounded. The ministry did not differentiate between civilians and militants. The Israeli military said early estimates were that around 15 fighters were killed.
The latest round of Israel-Gaza violence was rooted in the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, part of a monthlong Israeli military operation in the territory. A teen Islamic Jihad member was also killed in a gunbattle.
Israel then closed roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, warning of retaliation. On Friday, it killed Islamic Jihad's commander for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in a strike on a Gaza City apartment building.
An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an "imminent threat" from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.
Other Israeli strikes overnight largely hit on the outskirts of Gaza City or in rural areas, targeting what Israel said were rocket launchers, rocket building sites and Islamic Jihad camps.
Overnight, Israeli media showed the skies above southern and central Israel lighting up with rockets and interceptors from Israel's Iron Dome missile-defense system.
The U.N. special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said: "The launching of rockets must cease immediately, and I call on all sides to avoid further escalation."
Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reserve soldiers if needed while the military announced a "special situation" on the home front, with schools closed and limits placed on activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
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 flashpoint Jerusalem holy site.
Iran-backed Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but largely shares its ideology. Both groups oppose Israel's existence and have carried out scores of deadly attacks over the years, including the firing of rockets into Israel.