Israeli and Gaza militants exchange fire after deadly attacks

GAZA CITY, GAZA STRIP – Israeli airstrikes leveled homes in Gaza on Saturday and continued rocket fire into southern Israel, raising fears of an escalation in a conflict that has killed at least 15 people in the coastal line.

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. A 5-year-old girl and two women are among those killed in the attacks.

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 smaller 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.

On Saturday afternoon, Israeli warplanes intensified attacks hitting four residential buildings in Gaza City, all locations apparently linked to Islamic Jihad militants. The destruction was the largest yet in the current interchange within the densely populated city, but there were no reports of casualties. In each case, the Israeli army warned residents before the attacks.

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

In one of the attacks, after warnings, warplanes dropped two bombs on the house of an Islamic Jihad member. 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.

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, Gaza militants regularly fired rounds of rockets into southern Israel, but there were no reports of casualties. Most of the shelling was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, hit empty areas, or missed Gaza. Shrapnel from a rocket damaged the roof of a house in the town of Sderot, but the family was in a shelter.

On Friday night, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech that “Israel is not interested in a broader conflict in Gaza, but it will not be scared either.”

“This government has a zero tolerance policy 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 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 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 Palestinian Health Ministry put the death toll at 15 and said more than 80 were injured. The ministry did not differentiate between civilians and militants. The Israeli army said initial estimates were that around 15 fighters were killed.

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 West Bank, as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the territory. A teenage member of Islamic Jihad 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 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.

Other Israeli strikes overnight hit largely on the outskirts of Gaza City or in rural areas, targeting what Israel said were rocket launchers, rocket construction sites and Islamic Jihad camps.

Overnight, Israeli media showed the skies over southern and central Israel lighting up with rockets and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system.

The UN special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said: “The rocket fire must cease immediately, and I call on all parties to prevent further escalation.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reserve troops if needed, while the army announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and limits on activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the border.

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, including firing rockets at Israel.


Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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