GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) – Israeli airstrikes leveled homes in Gaza on Saturday and Palestinian rocket attacks on southern Israel continued for a second day, stoking fears of another major escalation in the Middle East conflict. Gaza’s health ministry said 24 people, including six children, have been killed in the coastal strip so far.
The fighting began with Israel’s killing of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in a wave of attacks on Friday that Israel said was intended to prevent an impending attack.
So far, Hamas, the larger militant group that rules the Gaza Strip, has appeared to be staying on the sidelines of the conflict and somewhat containing its intensity. Israel and Hamas were at war just under a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several smaller battles in the past 15 years that have taken a shattering toll on the 2 million Palestinian inhabitants of the impoverished area.
Whether Hamas stays out of the fight will likely depend in part on how much punishment Israel inflicts on Gaza as the rocket fire continues.
The Israeli military said a misguided missile fired by Palestinian militants killed civilians, including children, in the northern Gaza Strip city of Jabaliya late Saturday. The military said it had investigated the incident and concluded “without a doubt” that it was caused by a backfire on the part of Islamic Jihad. There was no official Palestinian comment on the incident.
A Palestinian medic, 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.
Earlier on Saturday, Israeli fighter jets hit four residential buildings in Gaza City, all locations believed to be linked to Islamic Jihad. There were no reports of casualties. In any case, the Israeli military warned residents of the attacks.
Another strike on Saturday killed 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 member after the warnings. The blast flattened the two-story building, leaving a large debris-filled crater and badly damaged surrounding homes.
Women and children stormed out of the area.
“Warned us? They warned us with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. She said 15 people lived in the target house.
Among the 24 Palestinians killed were six children and two women, as well as the senior commander of Islamic Jihad. Gaza’s Health Ministry said more than 200 people were injured. No distinction is made between civilians and combatants. The Israeli military said on Friday that around 15 militants were killed, according to initial estimates.
The lone power plant in Gaza ground to a halt Saturday midday due to a lack of fuel as Israel has kept its border crossings into Gaza closed since Tuesday. With the new disruption, Gaza residents can only get electricity for 4 hours a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and compounding the territory’s chronic power crisis amid the summer heat.
Throughout the day, Gaza militants regularly fired rockets at Israel. The Israeli military said Saturday night that nearly 450 rockets had been fired, of which 350 reached Israel, but almost all were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Two people suffered minor shrapnel wounds.
A volley of rockets was fired at Tel Aviv, setting off sirens that sent residents to emergency shelters, but the rockets were either intercepted or fell into the sea, the military said.
Sunday could be a critical day in the flare-up as Jews observe Tisha B’av, a somber fast commemorating the destruction of the Biblical temples. Thousands are expected at Jerusalem’s Wailing Wall, and Israeli media reported that Israeli leaders were expected to allow lawmakers to visit an important hilltop holy site in the city, which is a flashpoint of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
On Friday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised address that “Israel is not interested in a major conflict in Gaza, but will not shy away from it either.”
The violence represents an early test for Lapid, who has assumed the role of acting prime minister ahead of the November elections, 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 scant security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could buff his reputation and give him a boost if he faces off against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who has led the country in three of its four wars with Hamas.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new struggle, barely a year after the last war wreaked widespread devastation. Since then there has been almost no reconstruction and the isolated coastal area is riddled with poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%. Since the Hamas takeover in 2007, Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the territory.
Egypt on Saturday stepped up efforts to prevent an escalation and communicated with Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to stop Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza had its roots in the arrest of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank earlier this week, part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the area. A teenage Islamic Jihad member was also killed in a shootout.
Israel then closed roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border to announce retaliatory action. On Friday, she killed the commander of Islamic Jihad for the northern Gaza Strip, Taiseer al-Jabari, in an attack on an apartment building in Gaza City.
An Israeli military spokesman said the attacks were in response to an “imminent threat” posed by two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.
Israel has agreed to an order to call up 25,000 reserve troops if needed. Authorities closed schools and restricted other activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip. The last war with Israel took place 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 hot-spot in the holy site of Jerusalem.
Iran-backed Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but largely shares Hamas’ ideology. Both groups oppose the existence of Israel and have carried out numerous deadly attacks over the years, including firing rockets at Israel.
Goldenberg reported from Tel Aviv, Israel.