Israel and Gaza militants exchange fire after deadly attacks

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GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israeli fighter jets fired on militant targets in Gaza early Saturday as rockets rained down on southern Israel, hours after a wave of Israeli airstrikes on the coastal enclave killed at least 11 people, including a senior militant and a 5-year-old girl.

The fighting that began Friday with Israel’s dramatic targeted assassination of a senior commander of Palestinian Islamic Jihad continued through the night, drawing the parties closer to an all-out war.

But the Hamas rulers of the area appeared to be on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat limited for now. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several minor battles over the past 15 years, at a staggering cost to the area’s 2 million Palestinian residents.

The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza was sparked by the arrest this week of a high-ranking Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the area. Citing a security threat, Israel then closed roads around the Gaza Strip and killed the militant leader in a targeted attack on Friday.

An explosion was heard in Gaza City, where smoke poured from the seventh floor of a high-rise building. Video released by the Israeli military showed the strikes blowing up three watchtowers with suspected militants inside.

In a nationally televised speech broadcast on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country launched the attacks on the basis of “concrete threats”.

“This government has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempted attacks – of any kind – from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Lapid said. “Israel will not stand idly by when people try to harm its citizens.”

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“Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but will not shy away from it.” he added.

The violence is an early test for Lapid, who took on the role of interim prime minister ahead of the November election, when he hopes to keep his position.

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

Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether or not to engage in another battle, barely a year after the last war caused widespread devastation. Since then there has been almost no reconstruction and the isolated coastal area 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 dead in Gaza, without distinguishing between civilian casualties and militant victims. According to the Israeli army, according to early estimates, about 15 fighters were killed. Dozens were injured.

Islamic Jihad said that northern Gaza’s commander Taiser al-Jabari was among the dead. He succeeded another militant who was killed in an airstrike in 2019. That caused a fierce battle between Israel and the militant group.

An Israeli military spokesman said the attacks were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squadrons armed with anti-tank missiles. The spokesman, who informed reporters on condition of anonymity, said al-Jabari was deliberately targeted and responsible for “multiple attacks” on Israel.

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Hundreds marched in a funeral procession for him and others who were killed, with many mourners waving Palestinian and Islamic Jihad flags and calling for revenge.

Israeli media lit up the skies over southern and central Israel with missiles and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. It was not immediately clear how many missiles were launched and there were no direct reports of casualties on the Israeli side.

Overnight, Israel attacked rocket launchers, rocket building sites and Islamic Jihad positions. The army also arrested 19 Islamic Jihad militants in the West Bank.

UN special envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland, said: “Missile launches must be ceased immediately and I call on all parties to prevent further escalation.”

After the initial Israeli attacks, several hundred people gathered outside the morgue of Shifa’s main hospital in Gaza City. Some went in to identify loved ones and later emerged in tears.

“May God take vengeance on spies,” one shouted, referring to Palestinian informants collaborating with Israel.

Defense Secretary Benny Gantz approved an order to call in 25,000 reserve soldiers if necessary, while the military announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and restrictions on activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.

Israel closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it braced for a revenge attack following the arrest of Islamic Jihad leader Bassam al-Saadi on Monday during a military strike in the occupied West Bank. A teenage member of the group was killed in a shootout between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.

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Hamas seized control of the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. The most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions rose again earlier this year after a spate of attacks in Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a flash-point Jerusalem holy site. Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah told Iran’s Al-Mayadeen TV network that “Palestinian resistance fighters must stand together to face this aggression.” He said there would be “no red lines” and blamed Israel for the violence.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that “the Israeli enemy, who started the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and take full responsibility for it.”

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. It is unclear how much control Hamas has over Islamic Jihad, and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks from Gaza.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the area since the Hamas takeover. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from building its military capabilities. Critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.

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Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.

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