Gaza City, Gaza Strip ( Associated Press) — Israeli airstrikes destroyed homes in Gaza on Saturday and Palestinian rocket barrages continued for a second day in southern Israel, raising fears of another major escalation in the Middle East conflict. Gaza’s health ministry said 24 people had died in the coastal strip, including six children.
The fighting began with the Israeli killing of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist group in a wave of attacks on Friday, which Israel said were meant to avert an imminent 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, which took a staggering toll. Over 2 million Palestinian residents of the impoverished region.
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 on condition of anonymity, said at least six people, including three children, were killed in the blast.
Earlier on Saturday, Israeli warplanes struck four residential buildings in Gaza City, all places apparently linked to Islamic Jihad. There was no report 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.
Among the 24 Palestinians killed were six children and two women, as well as senior Islamic Jihad commanders. Gaza’s health ministry said more than 200 people were injured. It does not differentiate between civilians and fighters. The Israeli military said on Friday that initial estimates put some 15 fighters dead.
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 shy away from one.”
The violence became an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister. Ahead of the election in November, when he hopes to retain the position.
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 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 month-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.
Israel has approved an order to call in 25,000 reserve troops if needed. Authorities closed schools and banned other activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 mi) of the border.
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 flared up again earlier this year Tensions at the Jerusalem holy site followed a wave of attacks inside Israel, nearly daily military operations in the West Bank and a flashpoint.
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.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.