Israel launched airstrikes in Gaza on Saturday and a Palestinian militant group responded with rocket fire, marking the worst escalation of violence in the territory since the war last year.
Israel said it was forced to launch a “preemptive” operation against Islamic Jihad, insisting the group was planning an imminent attack after days of tension on the Gaza border.
Health authorities in Gaza, a Palestinian enclave controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, said an Israeli bombardment killed 11 people, including a five-year-old girl, and injured more than 80 others. The Israeli army estimated that 15 militants were killed during the operation.
Early Saturday, Israel expanded its operation against Islamic Jihad, a group that supports Hamas but often operates independently.
The Israeli army announced the arrest of 19 people it said were members of a group in the occupied West Bank, along with the arrest of another person.
Israel and Islamic Jihad confirmed the killing of Taysir al-Jabari, a key militant leader, on Friday in a strike on a building in western Gaza City.
Islamic Jihad said the initial Israeli bombardment amounted to a “declaration of war” before it fired a barrage of rockets towards Israel.
Rocket fire and Israeli strikes continued Saturday, threatening a repeat of the 11-day conflict in May 2021 that devastated Gaza and forced countless Israelis to flee to bomb shelters.
Daily life in the enclave has ground to a halt, the streets are mostly empty and most shops are closed. Some power lines were downed by Israeli airstrikes, an AFP reporter said.
“Israel is not interested in the wider conflict in Gaza, but neither will it shy away from it,” Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a nationally televised address on Friday.
Air raid sirens sounded in southern Israel on Saturday, but there were no reports of casualties or major damage.
The Israeli military said the vast majority of the 160 rockets fired from Gaza either landed in Palestinian territory or were intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system.
Officials in border areas urged people to stay close to shelters, which were also opened in the coastal city of Tel Aviv.
Egypt, a historic mediator between Israel and armed groups in Gaza, has sought to mediate and may host an Islamic Jihad delegation later on Saturday, Egyptian officials told AFP in Gaza.
But Islamic Jihad sources denied the ceasefire, with one saying: “There is no talk of Egyptian mediation and the movement is focused on the battlefield.”
The Arab League “condemned in the strongest terms the brutal Israeli aggression against Gaza,” while the Jordanian Foreign Ministry “stressed the importance of ending Israeli aggression.”
Hamas has fought four times with Israel since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, including a conflict last May.
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are considered terrorist organizations in much of the West.
An upsurge in Islamic jihad occurred in 2019 following Israel’s assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, Jabari’s predecessor. Hamas did not join the fray in that episode.
Hamas’s actions now could prove decisive as the group faces pressure from some to restore calm in order to improve economic conditions in Gaza.
A five-year-old girl
Fireballs and plumes of smoke billowed from targets hit in Gaza.
The health ministry said on Friday that among those killed was a “five-year-old girl who was targeted by the Israeli occupation.”
The girl, Alaa Kadum, had a pink bow in her hair and a wound on her forehead as her father carried her body to the funeral.
Hundreds of mourners gathered in Gaza City on Friday for the funeral of Jabari and others killed in airstrikes.
Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht said “we estimate that about 15 people were killed in the fighting” in Gaza, referring to Palestinian militants.
Israeli tanks were lined up along the border after the military said Thursday it was beefing up its forces.
The strikes come four days after Israel closed two border crossings with Gaza and restricted the movement of Israeli civilians living near the border, citing security concerns.
The measures followed the arrest in the occupied West Bank of two senior members of Islamic Jihad, including Bassem al-Saadi, whom Israel accuses of orchestrating the recent attacks.
Since mid-March, Israel has carried out an almost merciless wave of often deadly raids in the West Bank in response to deadly attacks on Israeli citizens.