Israel and Gaza militants exchange fire after deadly strikes; at least 15 killed

Israeli airstrikes destroyed homes in Gaza on Saturday and rocket barrages continued in southern Israel, raising fears of an escalation in the conflict, which killed at least 15 people in the coastal strip.

The fighting began with Israel killing a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group strike wave on friday that Israel said were to prevent an imminent attack. A 5-year-old girl and two women were also among those killed in the attack.

Until now, Hamas, the major extremist group ruling Gaza, seemed to have remained on the edge of the conflict, keeping the intensity of the conflict somewhat under control. Israel and Hamas fought a war barely a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several smaller battles in the past 15 years that have cost the poor region a staggering 2 million Palestinian residents.

Whether Hamas continues to stay out of the fight depends on how much punishment Israel delivers in Gaza as rocket fire continues.

The Israeli military said a misguided rocket fired by Palestinian militants killed civilians, including children, in the northern Gaza city of Jabaliya late Saturday. The military said it had investigated the incident and concluded “without any 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 the media and spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the explosion killed at least six people, including three children.

Earlier on Saturday, Israeli warplanes intensified attacks on four residential buildings in Gaza City, all places apparently linked to Islamic Jihad militants. The current exchange in the densely populated city has suffered the heaviest destruction so far, but there have been no reports of any casualties. In each case, the Israeli military warned residents before the attacks.

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

In one attack, following warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad member. The explosion flattened the two-story structure, leaving a large crater filled with rubble, and badly damaged surrounding homes.

Women and children fled from the spot.

“Warned us? They warned us with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamlakh, who lived next door. She said 15 people lived in the targeted house.

The lone power plant at the Gaza Ground came to a halt at noon on Saturday due to a fuel shortage as Israel closed its crossing point in Gaza from Tuesday. With the new disruption, Gazan can get electricity for only 4 hours a day, increasing their dependence on private generators and deepening the region’s chronic power crisis amid the scorching heat.

Throughout the day, Gaza militants regularly fired rockets into Israel. The Israeli military said Saturday evening that about 450 rockets were fired, of which 350 made it to Israel, but almost all were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. Two people have received minor injuries.

The military said a rocket barrage was fired toward Tel Aviv, triggering sirens to sound, sending residents to shelters, but the rockets were either intercepted or fell into the sea.

Sunday may have been an important day in the flare-up, as Jews mark Tisha Bav, a gloomy day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of biblical temples. Thousands are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and Israeli media reported that the Israeli leadership was expected to allow lawmakers to visit a major mountain holy site in the city, which serves as a safe haven for Israelis and Palestinians. Beach is a flashpoint for violence.

On Friday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech that “Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but will not back down from one.”

“This government has a zero tolerance policy for any attack from Gaza to Israeli territory,” he said. “When there are people who are trying to harm their citizens, Israel will not sit idly by.”

The violence is an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of the election in November, when he was expected to retain office.

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 burn and boost his position 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 engage in a new battle, barely a year after the widespread devastation in the previous war. There has been almost no reconstruction since then, and the isolated coastal region mired in poverty, with unemployment at around 50%. Israel and Egypt have imposed heavy blockades on the region since Hamas’ takeover in 2007.

Egypt on Saturday stepped up efforts to block talks with Israel, Palestine and the United States to prevent Hamas from engaging in fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as 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 terrorists. The Israeli military said initial estimates were that around 15 fighters were killed.

The latest round of Israel-Gaza violence was rooted in the arrest of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank earlier this week as part of a months-long Israeli military operation in the region. A teenage Islamic Jihad member was also killed in the encounter.

Israel then closed roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, warning of retaliation. On Friday, it killed Taisir al-Jabri, the commander of Islamic Jihad for northern Gaza, in an attack on a Gaza City apartment building.

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

Other Israeli attacks have been largely overnight on the outskirts of Gaza City or in the countryside, with Israel targeting rocket launchers, rocket manufacturing sites and Islamic Jihad camps.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved an order to call in 25,000 reserve troops if needed, while the military declared a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and communities within 80 kilometers (50 mi) of the border. activities were banned.

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 took place in May 2021. Tensions rose again earlier this year after a wave of attacks inside Israel, nearly daily military operations in the West Bank and a flashpoint at the 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 several deadly attacks over the years, including the firing of rockets into Israel.

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