Activists in Gaza and Israel exchange fire after bloody strikes

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (Associated Press) – Israeli aircraft bombed militant targets in Gaza on Saturday and rocket fire continued into southern Israel, raising fears of an escalation after a wave of Israeli air strikes on the coastal enclave killed at least 12 people, Among them is a senior official. A female fighter and a 5 year old girl.

The clashes began with Israel’s killing of a prominent Islamic Jihad leader in an air strike on Friday. It appears that the Hamas rulers in Gaza have so far remained on the fringes of the conflict, with its intensity somewhat contained, for the time being. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and many small battles over the past fifteen years at staggering cost The area’s population of two million Palestinians.

Just before noon on Saturday, Israeli warplanes intensified their airstrikes. After warning residents in phone calls, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad member in a residential area of ​​Gaza City, destroying the two-story building and severely damaging surrounding homes. Women and children rushed out of the area and there were no casualties.

“We were warned? They warned us with the missiles and we ran without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lives next door. She said 15 people live in the targeted house.

Another airstrike hit an Islamic Jihad position nearby. Gaza militants continued to fire rockets into southern Israel approximately every half hour, although there were no reports of casualties.

Gaza’s only power plant stopped at noon on Saturday due to a fuel shortage as Israel has kept its crossings into Gaza closed since Tuesday. The shutdown deepens the chronic electricity crisis in the overcrowded area amid the peak summer heat. With the new outage, Gaza residents can only get 4 hours of electricity per day, which increases their dependence on private generators.

The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza erupted after the arrest of a prominent Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank this week, as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the Strip. Claiming a security threat, Israel then closed roads around the Gaza Strip and on Friday killed the leader of Islamic Jihad in northern Gaza, Taysir al-Jabari, in a targeted strike.

An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two groups of militants armed with anti-tank missiles.

“This government has a policy of zero tolerance for any attempt to launch attacks – of any kind – from Gaza into Israeli territory,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised address on Friday. “Israel will not stand idly by when someone is trying to harm civilians.”

“Israel is not interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but it will not give up on one either.” he added.

The violence is an early test for Lapid, who took over as interim prime minister ahead of elections in November, where he hopes to keep the position.

Lapid, a former centrist presenter and television writer, has experience in diplomacy after serving as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but his security credentials are poor. The conflict with Gaza could polish his profile and give it a boost as he faces off against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the security hawk who led the country through three of its four wars with Hamas.

Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle barely a year after the last war that caused widespread destruction. There has been almost no reconstruction since, and the isolated coastal region is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%.

An Egyptian intelligence official said that Egypt has intensified its efforts to prevent escalation and outreach to Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to prevent Hamas from participating in the fighting. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief the media.

The Palestinian Health Ministry said a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were among 12 killed in Gaza, with more than 80 injured. It did not differentiate between civilians and militants. The Israeli army said initial estimates indicated that about 15 fighters had been killed.

Hundreds participated in the funeral of the leader of the Jabari Jihad and others were killed, and many mourners waved the flags of Palestine and Islamic Jihad and called for revenge. Khalaf al-Jabari was another militant killed in an airstrike in 2019Which at that time also led to a round of fierce fighting.

Overnight, Israeli media showed that the skies over southern and central Israel were lit up by missiles and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. There were no immediate reports of casualties on the Israeli side. Israel said its night raids in Gaza hit rocket launchers, rocket-building sites and Islamic Jihad sites. The army said it also arrested 19 Islamic Jihad activists in the West Bank.

“The rocket fire must stop immediately, and I call on all parties to avoid further escalation,” said the UN special envoy for the region, Tor Wencesland.

Defense Secretary Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reservists if needed, while the military declared a “special status” on the home front, with schools closed and restrictions on activities in communities 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the border.

Israel closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it prepared for a retaliatory attack after Islamic Jihad leader Bassam al-Saadi was arrested Monday in a military raid in the occupied West Bank. A member of the group was killed in a gun battle between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen.

Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal enclave. Its last war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions escalated again earlier this year Following a wave of attacks inside Israel, almost daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a holy site in Jerusalem.

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

Israel and Egypt have imposed a severe blockade on the Strip since the Hamas takeover. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities. Critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.

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Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.