Israeli airstrikes flattened homes in the Gaza Strip on Saturday and Palestinian rocket barrages into southern Israel persisted for a second day, raising fears of another major escalation in the Mideast conflict. Gaza’s Health Ministry said 24 people had been killed so far in the coastal strip, including six children.
The fighting began with Israel’s killing of a senior commander of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad in a wave of strikes Friday that Israel said were meant to prevent an imminent attack.
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 15 months ago, one of four major conflicts and several smaller battles over the last 15 years.
Whether Hamas continues to stay out of the fight probably depends in part on how much punishment Israel inflicts in Gaza as rocket fire steadily continues.
The Israeli military said an errant rocket fired by Palestinian militants killed civilians late Saturday, including children, in the town of Jabaliya, in northern Gaza. The military said it investigated the incident and concluded “without a doubt” that it was caused by a misfire on the part of Islamic Jihad. There was no official Palestinian comment on the incident.
A Palestinian medical worker, who was not authorized to brief media and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the blast killed at least six people, including three children.
Earlier on Saturday, Israeli warplanes stepped up strikes with hits on four residential buildings in Gaza City, all locations said to be linked to Islamic Jihad militants. There were no reports of casualties. In each case, the Israeli military said it warned residents ahead of the strikes.
An airstrike in the southern Gaza city of Rafah destroyed a home and heavily damaged surrounding buildings. The Health Ministry said at least two people were killed and 32 wounded, including children. The body of a teenage boy was recovered from the rubble, and the other person killed was identified by his family as Ziad al Mudalal, the son of an Islamic Jihad official.
The military said it targeted Khaled Mansour, Islamic Jihad's commander for southern Gaza. Neither Israel nor the militant group said whether he was hit. The Palestinian Civil Defense said that emergency workers were still sifting through the rubble and that a digger was being sent from Gaza City.
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 four 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 after the last war, in May 2021, caused widespread devastation. There has been almost no reconstruction since then, and the isolated coastal territory of 2 million residents 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 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 gun battle.
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 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 the Iron Dome defense system.
The United Nations 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 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.
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 periodic rocket fire into Israel.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.