Israeli air strikes flattened homes in Gaza on Saturday and rocket fire continued into southern Israel, raising fears of an escalation of the conflict that has killed at least 15 people in the coastal enclave.
The fighting began with Israel’s killing of a prominent leader in the Islamic Jihad movement in PalestineWhich Israel said was aimed at preventing an imminent attack. Among those killed in the strikes were a 5-year-old girl and two women.
So far, Hamas, the largest armed group ruling Gaza, appears to have remained on the fringes of the conflict, with its intensity somewhat contained. Israel and Hamas went to war about a year ago, one of four major conflicts and many small battles over the past 15 years that have taken a heavy toll on the impoverished area’s two million Palestinians.
It is likely that Hamas’ continued survival depends in part on the amount of punishment Israel imposes on Gaza as the rocket fire continues steadily.
The Israeli army said that a erroneous missile fired by Palestinian militants killed civilians late Saturday night, including children, in the town of Jabalia, north of Gaza. The army said it investigated the incident and concluded “without any doubt” that it was caused by a malfunction 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 to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the blast killed at least six people, including three children.
Earlier on Saturday, Israeli warplanes intensified their bombing of four residential buildings in Gaza City, all apparently linked to Islamic Jihad militants. The destruction was the heaviest yet in the current exchange within the densely populated city, but there were no reports of casualties. In each case, the IDF warned residents before the strikes.
Another strike on Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and wounding six other people.
In one raid, following warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of an Islamic Jihad member. The blast flattened the two-story building, leaving a large crater filled with rubble, and severely damaged surrounding homes.
Women and children rushed out of the area.
“They warned us, they warned us about missiles, and we ran without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lives next door. She said 15 people live in the targeted home.
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. With the new outage, Gazans can only get 4 hours of electricity per day, increasing their dependence on private generators and exacerbating the region’s chronic electricity crisis amid the peak summer heat.
Throughout the day, Gaza militants regularly fired rocket-propelled grenades into Israel. The Israeli army announced on Saturday evening that nearly 450 missiles were fired, 350 of which reached inside Israel, but the Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted almost all of them. Two people were slightly injured by shrapnel.
A barrage of rockets was launched toward Tel Aviv, setting off sirens that sent residents to shelters, but the rockets were either intercepted or fell into the sea, according to the military.
Sunday could be a crucial day in the outbreak of war, as Jews commemorate “Tisha B’Av,” a sad fasting day that commemorates the destruction of biblical temples. Thousands are expected to reach the Western Wall in Jerusalem, and Israeli media reported that the Israeli leadership is expected to allow lawmakers to visit a holy site on a hilltop in the city that is the epicenter 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 broader conflict in Gaza, but it will not give up on that either.”
“This government pursues a policy of zero tolerance for any attempt to launch attacks – of any kind – from Gaza towards Israeli territory,” he said. “Israel will not stand idly by when someone is trying to harm civilians.”
The violence is an early test for Lapid, who took over as caretaker prime minister before elections in November, when he hopes to retain the job.
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%. Israel and Egypt have imposed a severe blockade on the area since the Hamas takeover in 2007.
An Egyptian intelligence official said on Saturday that Egypt intensified its efforts to prevent escalation, reaching out 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 speak to the media.
The Palestinian Ministry of Health put the death toll at 15, killing and wounding more than 80. The ministry did not differentiate between civilians and militants. The Israeli army said initial estimates indicated that about 15 fighters had been killed.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza has its roots in the arrest of a prominent Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank earlier this week, as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the Strip. A teenage Islamic Jihad member was also killed in a gun battle.
Then Israel closed roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, warning of retaliation. On Friday, the movement killed the leader of the Islamic Jihad movement in northern Gaza, Taysir al-Jabari, in a raid on an apartment building in Gaza City.
An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two groups of militants armed with anti-tank missiles.
Other Israeli strikes overnight largely hit the outskirts of Gaza City or rural areas, targeting what Israel described as rocket launchers, rocket construction sites and Islamic Jihad camps.
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 activities restricted in communities 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the border.
Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal enclave. Its most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions escalated 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.
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.