By FARES AKRAM and JOSEPH KRAUSS
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israel unleashed a wave of airstrikes in Gaza on Friday, killing at least 10 people, including a senior militant, and wounding dozens, Palestinian officials said. Israel said it was targeting the Islamic Jihad militant group in response to an “imminent threat” following the arrest of another high-ranking militant in the occupied West Bank earlier this week.
Palestinian militants launched a barrage of rockets hours later as air raid sirens sounded across central and southern Israel, bringing the sides one step closer to all-out war. Islamic Jihad claimed to have fired 100 rockets.
Israel and the militant Hamas leaders of Gaza have fought four wars and several small battles in the past 15 years at a staggering cost to the territory’s 2 million Palestinian residents.
An explosion was heard in Gaza City, where smoke billowed from the seventh floor of a tall building on Friday afternoon. Video released by the military showed strikes blowing up three guard towers with suspected militants inside.
In a nationally televised address Friday night, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country launched the attacks based on “concrete threats”.
“This government has a policy of zero tolerance for any attempted attack – of any kind – from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Lapid said. “Israel will not stand idly by when there are those who try to harm its civilians.”
He also added that “Israel is not interested in a broader conflict in Gaza, but will not shy away from it either.”
The violence is an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of November elections in which he hopes to retain his post. He has experience in diplomacy, having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but his security credentials are slim.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle – barely a year after the last war caused widespread devastation. Since then, there has been almost no reconstruction and the remote coastal territory is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were among the casualties and 55 other people were injured. He made no distinction between civilians and militants. The Israeli army said early estimates were that around 15 fighters had been killed.
Islamic Jihad said Taiseer al-Jabari, its commander for northern Gaza, was among those killed. He had taken over from another activist killed in an airstrike in 2019. Hundreds marched in a funeral procession for him and others killed, with many mourners waving Palestinian flags and Jihad banners Islamic as they called for revenge.
Israeli media showed the skies above southern and central Israel lighting up with rockets and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. An explosion was heard in Tel Aviv. It was not immediately clear how many rockets had been launched and there was no immediate word on the casualties on the Israeli side.
Israel continued to strike other targets on Friday, including weapons production facilities and Islamic Jihad positions.
After the first Israeli strikes, a few hundred people gathered outside the morgue of the main Shifa hospital in Gaza City. Some walked in to identify loved ones, only to come out in tears. One of them shouted, “May God take revenge on the spies,” referring to Palestinian informants cooperating with Israel.
An Israeli military spokesman said they launched the strikes in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles. The spokesman, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said al-Jabari was deliberately targeted and was responsible for “multiple attacks” against Israel.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz meanwhile approved an order to call up 25,000 reserve troops if needed. And the army announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and limits imposed on other activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
Israel had closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it prepared for a revenge attack after the arrest on Monday of Bassam al-Saadi, an Islamic Jihad leader, during a a military raid in the occupied West Bank. A teenage member of the group was killed in a shootout between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the militant group seized power in the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. The most recent was in May 2021, and tensions soared again earlier this year in following an almost daily wave of attacks inside Israel. military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a holy site in Jerusalem.
Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, speaking to al-Mayadeen TV from Iran, said “Palestinian resistance fighters must come together to confront this aggression.” He said there would be “no red lines” and blamed the violence on Israel.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said “the Israeli enemy, which triggered the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and take full responsibility.”
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 into Israel. Hamas’ degree of control over Islamic Jihad is unclear, and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a strict blockade on the territory since Hamas took power. Israel says the shutdown is necessary to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities, while critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.
Mohammed Abu Selmia, director of the Shifa hospital, Gaza’s largest, said hospitals were facing shortages after Israel imposed a full lockdown on Gaza earlier this week. He said there were enough essential supplies and medicines to sustain hospitals for five days in normal times, but with a new round of fighting underway “they could run out at any time”.
Israel canceled a scheduled fuel delivery for Gaza’s only power plant, which was due to close early Saturday if fuel did not enter the territory. Even when the plant is running at full capacity, Gazans still experience daily power cuts that last for several hours.
Earlier Friday, a few hundred Israelis demonstrated near the Gaza Strip on Friday demanding the return of the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas.
The protesters were led by the family of Hadar Goldin, who, along with Oron Shaul, was killed in the 2014 Gaza war. Hamas still holds their remains, along with two Israeli civilians who strayed into Gaza and are believed to be mentally ill, hoping to exchange them for some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Israel says there can be no major progress towards lifting the blockade until the remnants of soldiers and captive civilians are freed. Israel and Hamas have held numerous rounds of Egyptian-mediated talks on a possible swap.
Krauss reported from Ottawa, Ontario. Associated Press reporter Ariel Schalit of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, Israel, contributed to this report.