Islamic Jihad said in a statement that one of its top commanders, Taysir al-Jabari, was killed in an Israeli raid. The group said he was a commander in Liwa al-Quds, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, and a member of its military council.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said at least 10 people were killed, including a five-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman. She added that 75 others were injured. Israel insists that most of the dead were militants.
A CNN producer in Gaza watched medics remove two bodies from a building called the Palestine Tower that was hit in one of the strikes.
An IDF statement said the military operation – dubbed “Breaking Dawn” – was targeting Islamic Jihad, the smaller of the two main militant groups in Gaza.
The IDF said that the main focus of its military action was a preemptive airstrike on Jabari, strikes on two anti-tank groups that were on their way to carry out an attack on Israeli forces.
In a call with reporters Friday night, an army spokesman said the two divisions were tracked for several days before the air force carried out its operation, adding that Israel had been facing an imminent threat for several days as the two militant units came too close to the fence separating Gaza and Israel.
The Israeli military said a “special status” had been declared in areas around Gaza, in anticipation of possible rocket launches or other retaliatory attacks.
“The objective of this operation is to eliminate a concrete threat against the citizens of Israel and civilians living near the Gaza Strip, as well as to target terrorists and their sponsors,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a joint statement.
“The Israeli government will not allow terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip to set an agenda in the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of the State of Israel. Anyone who tries to harm Israel should know: We will find you.” Lapid said.
Islamic Jihad vowed to respond. “All options are open by all means available to the Palestinian resistance, whether in Gaza or outside it,” spokesman Daoud Shehab told Al-Jazeera. “The battlefield is open… the resistance will respond with full force. We won’t say how, but this is inevitable.”
Meanwhile, Gantz authorized the call-up of 25,000 reserve soldiers on Friday evening, in a sign that Israel was preparing for a large-scale escalation.
The Defense Ministry said those called up immediately would reinforce the army’s Southern Command, which includes the area around Gaza, as well as units that operate Israel’s air defense systems, among other deployments.
Sirens of incoming rockets were heard in the southern town of Sderot and other villages near Gaza late Friday night. Earlier, sirens sounded in Bat Yam, located a few kilometers south of Tel Aviv, and in Yavne, located between Tel Aviv and Ashdod. Israeli media reported that the Iron Dome air defense system intercepted several missiles, and there were no reports of casualties in Israel.
By midnight local time Friday through Saturday (5 p.m. ET on Friday), Palestinian militants had fired 118 rockets toward Israel, according to an IDF official.
The military said 11 rockets failed to cross the fence separating Gaza and Israel, meaning they landed somewhere inside the Strip.
The military official said the rest were either intercepted or landed in open areas.
The Israeli military said it continues to bomb Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, including a rocket launch site near the southern Gaza city of Khan Yunis. The military also said it was bombing weapons production facilities.
Hamas, the armed group that controls Gaza, appears to be walking cautiously in the midst of a dangerous escalation between Israel and Islamic Jihad, the smaller of the two main active factions in the Strip.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh blamed Israel for the escalation, but his recent statements stopped short of threatening attacks in response, or warning of retaliation. Instead, they emphasized the role of international mediators, and Hamas’ participation in talks aimed at ending hostilities.
A Hamas statement quoted Haniyeh at dawn on Saturday as saying that “the Israeli occupation bears full responsibility for its recent escalation in the Gaza Strip.” “Haniyeh stressed, in a telephone conversation with senior Egyptian intelligence officials, the need to stop the continuous Israeli bombardment of the besieged Gaza Strip immediately,” the statement added.
An earlier statement by Hamas said Haniyeh spoke by phone with the Qatari foreign minister in an attempt to put a cover on the violence.
When the militants of Israel and Gaza fought a brief war in May 2021 – the fourth such war in 13 years – it was clear that Hamas was in the driving seat. It sought to use the increased violence in and around Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem as a pretext to launch rockets toward Jerusalem, which led to the outbreak of the 11-day conflict.
Tor Wencesland, the UN’s top official in the Middle East, expressed deep concern over the ongoing escalation between the two sides.
Referring to the killing of a five-year-old girl, Wencesland said there could be “no justification for any attacks against civilians.” Addressing the militants, he said, “The rocket fire must stop immediately, and I call on all parties to avoid further escalation.”
The United Nations, along with Egypt, often played a key mediating role between Israel and Palestinian militants in restoring the ceasefire after the outbreak of hostilities.
Winesland said the United Nations was “working fully with all parties involved” to try to avoid further deterioration. But he added that “the responsibility lies with both parties to avoid this happening.”
Friday’s strikes come after Israeli forces arrested a prominent leader of the Islamic Jihad movement, Bassam al-Saadi, during a Monday night raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin.
During the operation, a 17-year-old Palestinian with links to Islamic Jihad was killed in a shootout with Israeli soldiers, according to the IDF. The Palestinian Ministry of Health said that Israeli forces shot him in the head.
Israel said al-Saadi was one of two wanted suspects in the attack arrested in the raid. Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, said it was massing its forces throughout the Palestinian territories in response.
Recent months have witnessed repeated Israeli operations in and around Jenin, after several deadly attacks inside Israel carried out by Palestinian militants from the area. Thirty Palestinians have been killed in raids since the beginning of the year, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
Neri Zilber in Jerusalem contributed to this report.