Israel and militants exchange fire as Gaza death toll rises to 24

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip –

Israeli airstrikes leveled homes in Gaza on Saturday and Palestinian rocket fire into southern Israel persisted for a second day, raising fears of another major escalation in the Middle East conflict. The Gaza Health Ministry said 24 people had died so far in the coastal strip, including six children.

The clashes began with Israel’s killing of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in a wave of attacks on Friday that Israel said were aimed at preventing an imminent attack.

Until now, Hamas, the largest militant group that rules Gaza, seemed to stay out 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 minor battles in the last 15 years that took a staggering toll on the 2 million Palestinian residents of the impoverished territory.

Whether Hamas continues to stay out of the fighting probably depends in part on how much punishment Israel inflicts on Gaza as the rocket fire continues.

The Israeli army said an errant rocket fired by Palestinian militants killed civilians, including children, in the northern Gaza city of Jabaliya on Saturday night. The army said it investigated the incident and concluded “without a doubt” that it was caused by a misfire by Islamic Jihad. There were no official Palestinian comments on the incident.

A Palestinian medical worker, who was not authorized to brief the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the blast killed at least six people, including three children.

An airstrike in the southern city of Rafah destroyed a house and severely damaged surrounding buildings. The Health Ministry said at least two people were killed and 32 injured, including children. A teenager 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 army said it targeted Khaled Mansour, the Islamic Jihad commander for southern Gaza. Neither Israel nor the militant group said if he was hit. Civil Defense said rescuers were still sifting through the rubble and a bulldozer was being dispatched from Gaza City.

Another attack on Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and wounding six others.

In one of the attacks, warplanes dropped two bombs on the house of an Islamic Jihad member after Israel warned people to evacuate the area. The blast leveled the two-story structure, leaving a large debris-filled crater and severely damaging nearby homes.

Women and children ran from the area.

“Did they warn us? They warned us with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. She said that 15 people lived in the target house.

Among the 24 Palestinians killed were six children and two women, as well as the top Islamic Jihad commander. The Gaza Health Ministry said more than 200 people were injured. It does not differentiate between civilians and combatants. The Israeli army said on Friday that early estimates were that around 15 fighters were killed.

The only power plant in Gaza was halted at noon on Saturday for lack of fuel, as Israel has kept its crossing points into Gaza closed since Tuesday. With the new outage, Gazans can get just 4 hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and deepening the territory’s chronic energy crisis amid peak summer heat.

Throughout the day, militants in Gaza regularly fired rounds of 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 suffered minor shrapnel injuries.

A barrage of rockets was fired towards Tel Aviv, setting off sirens that sent residents to shelters, but the rockets were either intercepted or fell into the sea, the army said.

Sunday could be a critical day in the outbreak as Jews celebrate Tisha B’av, a somber fast day that commemorates the destruction of biblical temples. Thousands of people are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, with Israeli media reporting that the Israeli leadership was expected to allow lawmakers to visit a key hilltop holy site in the city that is a flashpoint of violence. between Israelis and Palestinians.

The violence poses an early test for Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who assumed the role of interim prime minister ahead of elections in November, when he hopes to keep the job.

Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has a background in diplomacy having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has few security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could polish his position and give him a boost when he takes on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country through three of his four wars with Hamas.

Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle just 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 strict blockade on the territory since Hamas took power in 2007.

Egypt on Saturday stepped up its efforts to prevent an escalation, reaching out to Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to prevent Hamas from joining the fight, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza was based on the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the occupied West Bank, as part of a months-long Israeli military operation.

Israel then closed the roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, bracing for retaliation. On Friday, he killed Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in an attack on an apartment building in Gaza City.

An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.

Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip. His most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions spiked again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a Jerusalem holy site.

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.


Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Ottawa, Ontario, contributed to this report.

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