The fighting began with Israel’s killing of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in a wave of strikes on Friday that Israel said were aimed at preventing an imminent attack.
So far, Hamas, the largest militant group that rules Gaza, has seemed to remain on the sidelines 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 small battles in the past 15 years that have taken a heavy toll on the impoverished territory’s 2 million Palestinian residents .
Whether Hamas will continue to stay out of the fight likely depends in part on the degree of punishment Israel inflicts on Gaza as rocket fire continues steadily.
The Israeli army said a rocket fired by Palestinian militants killed civilians Saturday night, including children, in the northern Gaza town of Jabaliya. The army said it investigated the incident and concluded “without any doubt” that it was caused by a failure 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 on condition of anonymity, said the blast killed at least six people, including three children.
An airstrike in the southern town of Rafah destroyed a house and heavily damaged surrounding buildings. The Health Ministry said at least two people were killed and 32 injured, including children. A teenager was recovered from the rubble and the other person killed was identified by his family as Ziad al-Mudalal, the son of an Islamic Jihad official.
The army said it was targeting Khaled Mansour, the Islamic Jihad commander for southern Gaza. Neither Israel nor the militant group said if he was hit. Civil Defense said responders were still digging through the rubble and an excavator was dispatched from Gaza City.
Another strike on Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and injuring six others.
In one of the strikes, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad operative after Israel warned people to evacuate the area. The blast flattened the two-story structure, leaving a large crater filled with rubble and severely damaging surrounding homes.
Women and children rushed out of the area.
“Told us? They tipped us off with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. She said 15 people lived in the targeted house.
Among the 24 Palestinians killed were six children and two women, as well as the top commander of Islamic Jihad. Gaza’s health ministry said more than 200 people were injured. It does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. The Israeli army said on Friday that initial estimates indicated that around 15 fighters had been killed.
Gaza’s only power station shut down at noon on Saturday due to lack of fuel as Israel closed its crossings into Gaza on Tuesday. With the new disruption, Gazans can only get 4 hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and worsening the territory’s chronic electricity crisis amid peak summer heat.
Throughout the day, militants in Gaza regularly launched rockets into Israel. The Israeli military said on Saturday evening that nearly 450 rockets were fired, of which 350 hit Israel, but nearly all of them were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Two people were slightly injured by shrapnel.
A barrage of rockets was fired towards Tel Aviv, triggering sirens that sent residents to shelters, but the rockets were intercepted or fell overboard, the military said.
Sunday could be a critical day in the surge, as Jews mark Tisha B’av, a somber day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of biblical temples. Thousands of people are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and Israeli media have reported that Israeli leaders are to allow lawmakers to visit a key hilltop holy site in the city that is a hotbed of violence between Israelis and Israelis. Palestinians.
The violence is an early test for Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of November elections as he hopes to retain his post.
Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has a diplomatic background having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has weak security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could improve his position and give him a boost as he takes on former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country in three of his four wars with Hamas.
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%. Israel and Egypt have maintained a strict blockade on the territory since the Hamas takeover in 2007.
Egypt stepped up efforts to prevent the escalation on Saturday, communicating with Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to prevent Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza stemmed from the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad operative in the occupied West Bank, as part of a month-long Israeli military operation.
Israel then closed the roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, preparing for retaliation. On Friday, he killed Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in a strike on a 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.
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 was in May 2021. Tensions soared again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a holy site in Jerusalem.
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.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel. Associated Press writer Joseph Krauss in Ottawa, Ontario, contributed to this report.