TOP STORIES Israel Strikes Gaza, Provoking Rockets, Ending Relative Calm

Israel Strikes Gaza, Provoking Rockets, Ending Relative Calm


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TEL AVIV – Israeli airstrikes Friday hit several targets in the Gaza Strip, prompting Palestinian militants to return fire with dozens of rockets in the deadliest escalation of violence in the territory since last year’s 11-day war.

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, Israeli airstrikes hit residential buildings as well as militant watchtowers and outposts, killing the militant leader and at least nine others, including a 5-year-old girl.

UN officials attempted to broker a truce, but militants continued to return rocket fire late Friday evening, raising the possibility of a more protracted conflict that diplomats and analysts feared could last until next week.

Israel said its strikes were a preemptive attempt to prevent an imminent attack on Israeli civilians by Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in Gaza. According to Islamic Jihad and the Israeli military, Taysir al-Jabari, a senior military leader of the group, was killed in one of the first airstrikes. Israel launched further strikes later on Friday after the Palestinians returned fire.

The range and number of rockets fired from Gaza deep into Israeli territory posed a greater threat than any shelling from the enclave since the May 2021 war. Militants in Gaza fire rockets into Israel several times a year, but usually over short distances and into rural areas.

“The enemy has started a war against our people and we must all defend ourselves and our people,” the Islamic Jihad said in a statement.

Israeli broadcasters showed the missiles flying over Israeli territory and then being intercepted by missiles from the Israeli air defense system known as the “Iron Dome”. Intercepts were reported in the skies as far as Yavne, a city in central Israel south of Tel Aviv, while air raid sirens sounded throughout much of the south throughout the night, indicating heavy rocket fire overhead.

Several cities in southern Israel opened their public bomb shelters as a precaution, and two Israelis were reportedly injured while seeking shelter.

The escalation followed one of the least violent phases in Gaza in several years. Both Israel and Hamas, the paramilitary group that rules the Gaza Strip, have previously signaled they want to avoid another all-out war over the enclave, which has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007.

There have been relatively few cross-border shootings since May 2021 as tensions have shifted to the occupied West Bank and Israel itself.

But over the past week, the possibility of a new conflict in Gaza has resurfaced, this time not with Hamas, but with Islamic Jihad. This week, Israel arrested a senior Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank, leading to death threats from his leadership in Gaza.

This week, Israel closed the entrances to the Gaza Strip in anticipation of a retaliatory strike after the arrest and closed Israeli roads on the outskirts of Gaza.

By Friday, Islamic Jihad had yet to respond to the arrest with an attack, but Israel said it was on the verge of doing so and therefore targeted Mr. al-Jabari and others preemptively.

“Israel will not allow terrorist organizations to set the agenda in the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of the State of Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said shortly after the first airstrikes.

The length and intensity of the escalation may be partly determined by whether Hamas joins Islamic Jihad in returning fire.

In the past, Hamas has occasionally stood aside when Islamic Jihad clashed with Israel, and the group did not immediately rule out a repeat of that approach on Friday.

“Grieving for the leader al-Jabari and the righteous martyrs, we confirm that questions are open to all directions, calling for an end to the Zionist aggression against our people,” Ismail Haniya, head of the Hamas political bureau, said. .

UN officials tried late Friday night to persuade all parties to resign.

After the first impacts, clouds of smoke billowed over the Gaza skyline. On the ground, crowds of rescuers, medics and onlookers gathered on the street near the site where the Islamic Jihad commander was killed. Photos posted online show him being carried through the crowd, with a grieving man carrying what appears to be a dead child wrapped in a shroud.

The airstrikes have moved the hotbed of conflict back to Gaza after a period of heightened violence in Israel and the West Bank.

Since March, Palestinian attackers have killed at least 19 Israelis and foreigners in the West Bank and Israel in the most intense wave of stabbings and shootings in several years. In response, Israel raided the West Bank almost every night, arresting hundreds of Palestinians and killing more than 40, according to the UN.

Several civilians were caught off guard during the West Bank riots, including Shirin Abu Akle, a Palestinian-American TV presenter who was shot and killed while covering an Israeli raid in May.

Gaza has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip in 2007. This blockade places severe restrictions on what is allowed to enter the enclave and who is allowed to leave.

Israel says the blockade is necessary to stop the flow of weapons to Palestinian militants, but Palestinians and aid groups say it is a punitive measure that exacerbates dire economic and social conditions in the strip. Palestinian officials said dozens of people who were due to travel to the West Bank for treatment were among those unable to leave Gaza as a result of the lockdown this week.

Hamas has repeatedly said in recent months that it does not want another major military escalation in Gaza, partly to avoid a worsening of the humanitarian situation soon after last year’s devastating war.

The Gaza authorities are still repairing buildings damaged or destroyed during the fighting last May; Hamas and Islamic Jihad are still replenishing their missile depots; and Gazans are reluctant to give up certain concessions made by Israel since last year’s war, including an increase in the number of Israeli work permits issued to Gazans, which is a major lifeline for the Gaza economy.

Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv and Patrick Kingsley from Menerbes, France. Jonathan Rosen provided reporting from Jerusalem, Fadi Hanona from Gaza and Iyad Abu Khweila from Antalya, Turkey.

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