The deadliest escalation in more than a year between Israeli activists and the Gaza Strip extended into a second day on Saturday, with air strikes destroying apartment buildings and killing five people in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials.
The Israeli army said it bombed two homes in Gaza belonging to Islamic Jihad activists, which they described as weapons stores. Military officials said advance warnings had been given, and apartment buildings had been evacuated before the strikes.
Islamic Jihad and other small Palestinian groups in Gaza fired rockets, mostly at Israeli towns closest to the strip’s fringes.
Renewed tensions have highlighted the challenge of preventing escalation in Israel and the Occupied Territories with the Israeli and Palestinian leadership divided and politically weak, international attention elsewhere, and little hope of an end to the 15-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. From Israel and Egypt.
“There is no end in sight to this episode, and no actor appears willing to build any more stable alternative,” said Professor Nathan Brown, an expert on Middle East affairs at George Washington University.
That round of fighting, which began on Friday with Israeli air strikes, was fought between Israel and Islamic Jihad, Gaza’s second largest armed group. Hamas, the dominant militia in Gaza, has so far shied away from direct intervention, raising hopes that the conflict will not escalate into a larger war. However, a ceasefire does not appear imminent, despite early mediation efforts by foreign diplomats and the United Nations.
The killing of five Palestinians on Saturday brought the death toll in two days to 15, according to Gaza health officials. Among the dead was a five-year-old girl on Friday.
Gaza’s only power plant has halted operations due to a freeze on fuel shipments from Israel, reducing power in large parts of the Strip.
The fighting began on Friday when Israel launched pre-emptive air strikes to thwart what it said was an imminent attack by Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Earlier in the week, Israel arrested a prominent Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, prompting threats of retaliation against the movement. Israel said its air strikes were aimed at preventing the movement from pursuing those threats.
An airstrike on Friday killed a senior Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, prompting the group to respond with several rocket-propelled grenades and mortars that drove thousands of Israelis to shelters Friday night.
Since the 11-day war in May last year, Israel has persuaded militias in Gaza to avoid violence by offering 14,000 work permits to Palestinian workers in the Strip – the highest number since Hamas took control of the Strip in 2007.
Nearly two million people live in Gaza and most receive no direct benefit from the new permits. But the permits nonetheless provide a crucial financial lifeline to thousands of families in the enclave, with nearly one in two unemployed and only one in ten having direct access to clean water, according to UNICEF. Complex medical treatment is often not available.
Fearing losing that privilege, particularly while still rebuilding military infrastructure damaged during the last war, Hamas avoided a major year-round escalation in Gaza while continuing to encourage unrest and violence in Israel and the West Bank.
But Islamic Jihad, which, unlike Hamas, does not rule Gaza, is not motivated by small economic concessions, unlike Hamas.
Rockets and other shells fired from Gaza hit at least two Israeli towns on Saturday, wounding at least two soldiers and one civilian, according to Israeli officials and news reports. But the majority of Palestinian rockets either landed on open areas or were intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” air defense system, according to the Israeli army.
This escalation is at least the sixth escalation of violence in the Strip since the Hamas takeover in 2007, which prompted Israel and Egypt to begin their siege. Israel is not ready to end the siege as long as Hamas is in power, and Hamas does not recognize Israel and refuses to end its armed activities.
In the absence of a formal peace process to end the conflict, repeated rounds of violence in Gaza, as well as sporadic bursts of back-channel diplomacy, are considered alternative ways to renegotiate the terms of the Gaza blockade.
“In the absence of anything more permanent, both sides resort to violence not to defeat the other – let alone eliminate it – but only to adjust terms, as well as to play with the local audience,” said Mr. Brown, the Middle East expert.
This escalation in Gaza can be linked to the recent surge in violence across Israel and the West Bank several months ago.
An escalation of Palestinian attacks on civilians in Israel in April and May led to an increase in Israeli raids on the West Bank, particularly in areas from which Israeli officials said the attackers and their instigators came.
The Israeli campaign has resulted in near-night arrests across the West Bank over the past several months, culminating in the arrest this week of Basem al-Saadi, a prominent Islamic Jihad leader.
This escalation was also a reminder of Iran’s long shadow over Israeli and Palestinian affairs. While Israel views Tehran’s nuclear program as the greatest threat, it also exercises regional influence by providing financial and logistical assistance to hard-line proxies throughout the Middle East such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza.
Analysts said providing support to Palestinian armed groups allows Tehran to destabilize Gaza, the West Bank, and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority that runs parts of the West Bank. This could distract Israel from operating on other fronts, including against Iranian targets in Syria or in Iran itself.
The opening Israeli strikes in Gaza took place while the leader of Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhala, was visiting Tehran to meet with the group’s Iranian sponsors – a factor that may have contributed to the group’s refusal to back down from its threat to retaliate against Israel’s arrest campaign in the West Bank.
“Because of their complete dependence on the Iranians, they have to do what the Iranians tell them to do,” said Kobi Michael, a national security expert at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
The crisis provided the first major test for Yair Lapid, Israel’s caretaker prime minister who took office last month after the collapse of his predecessor’s government.
The military operation is a risky gambit for Mr. Lapid, a centrist who is often derided for his lack of security experience by his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who now leads the opposition.
The escalation gives Mr. Lapid the opportunity to prove his security credentials to Israeli voters, but it also leaves him open to accusations that he is endangering the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
In Gaza, mourners were already counting the costs of the escalation and mourning the loss of human life.
Pictures showed that relatives of 5-year-old Alaa Qaddoum, who was killed in an airstrike on Friday, wrapped her body in white shrouds and Palestinian flags, leaving her face uncovered to allow mourners to kiss her before her burial on Friday. A bright pink bow tied most of her hair back.
Israel has in the past blamed militants for killing civilians, saying they often position their rocket launchers and bases near civilian homes and infrastructure.
Briefing international journalists at a military base near the Gaza border in late July, senior Israeli military officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity under army rules, provided maps showing the routes of what they said were parts of an armed tunnel network. Including sections running under the roads around one of Gaza’s major universities.
The length and scope of the fighting will depend in part on Hamas’ participation.
Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’ political bureau, said on Friday that the movement is “open to all directions.” On Saturday, he said he had spoken to mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations.
But IDF spokesman Ran Kochav told Israel Public Radio on Saturday that the fighting would continue for at least a week.
Raja Abdel Rahim, Carol Sutherland, and Fadi Hannouna contributed to this report.