The worst escalation in more than a year between Israeli and Gaza militants dragged on into a second day on Saturday, when airstrikes destroyed homes and killed five people in Gaza, Palestinian health officials said.
The Israeli military said it hit two homes in Gaza belonging to Islamic Jihad militants, which they called arms depots. Military officials said advance warnings had been issued and that residences had been evacuated prior to the strikes.
Islamic Jihad and other smaller groups of Palestinian militants in Gaza fired rockets mainly at Israeli towns closest to the edge of the territory.
Renewed tensions have highlighted the problem of preventing outbreaks in Israel and the occupied territories, with both Israeli and Palestinian leaderships divided and politically weak, international attention focused elsewhere, and little hope of ending the 15-year blockade of Gaza. Israel and Egypt.
“There is no end in sight to this cycle, and no actor seems to want to create a more stable alternative,” said Professor Nathan J. Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University.
This round of fighting, which began on Friday with Israeli airstrikes, has basically pitted Israel against Islamic Jihad, Gaza’s second-largest militant group. Hamas, the dominant militia in Gaza, has so far refrained from direct intervention, giving hope that the conflict does not escalate into a larger war. However, a ceasefire did not seem imminent, despite early mediation efforts by foreign diplomats and the United Nations.
The five Palestinians killed on Saturday raised the two-day death toll to 15, according to health officials in Gaza. One of those killed on Friday was a 5-year-old girl.
The only power plant in Gaza stopped working due to the cessation of fuel supplies from Israel, which led to a further decrease in power in large parts of the territory.
Fighting began on Friday when Israel launched preemptive airstrikes to thwart what it said was an imminent Islamic Jihad attack in Gaza. Earlier this week, Israel arrested a senior Islamic Jihad figure in the West Bank, leading to threats of reprisals from the group. Israel said its airstrikes were intended to prevent the group from realizing those threats.
An airstrike on Friday killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza, prompting the group to return fire with several rocket and mortar volleys, sending thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters overnight Friday.
After the 11-day war last May, Israel convinced Gaza militias to avoid violence by offering 14,000 work permits to Palestinian workers in the territory, the highest since Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007.
About two million people live in Gaza, and most of them do not directly benefit from the new permits. But according to UNICEF, the permits nonetheless provide vital financial assistance to thousands of families in an enclave where almost one in two unemployed people and only one in ten have direct access to clean water. Comprehensive medical treatment is often not available.
Fearing to lose this concession, especially at a time when it is still rebuilding military infrastructure damaged during the last war, Hamas avoided a major escalation in Gaza throughout the year by continuing to encourage unrest and violence in Israel and the West Bank.
But Islamic Jihad, which, unlike Hamas, does not rule Gaza, is less motivated by small economic concessions.
Rockets and other projectiles fired from Gaza hit at least two Israeli cities on Saturday, injuring at least two soldiers and one civilian, according to Israeli officials and news reports. But according to the Israeli military, most of the Palestinian rockets either landed in open areas or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system.
The escalation is at least the sixth surge in violence in the strip since Hamas took control in 2007, prompting Israel and Egypt to launch a blockade. Israel is not ready to end the blockade while Hamas is in power, and Hamas does not recognize Israel and refuses to stop its armed activities.
In the absence of a formal peace process to end the conflict, repeated bursts of violence in Gaza, as well as periodic bursts of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, are seen as alternative ways to renegotiate the Gaza blockade.
“In the absence of anything more durable, both sides resort to violence, not to defeat the other side, much less eliminate it, but simply to correct conditions and also play on the home audience,” Mr. Brown said. , an expert on the Middle East.
This escalation in Gaza may be related to the recent spike in violence in Israel and the West Bank a few months ago.
Increased attacks by Palestinians on civilians in Israel in April and May led to an increase in Israeli raids in the West Bank, especially in areas where Israeli officials said the attackers and their collaborators had come from.
The Israeli campaign has resulted in almost nightly arrests in the West Bank over the past few months and culminated this week in the arrest of Bassem Saadi, a senior Islamic Jihad figure.
The escalation also came as a reminder of Iran’s long shadow in Israeli and Palestinian affairs. Though viewed by Israel as the biggest threat, Tehran’s nuclear program also has influence in the region, providing financial and logistical assistance to militants in the Middle East such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza.
Supporting Palestinian militants allows Tehran to destabilize Gaza, the West Bank and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority that runs parts of the West Bank, analysts say. This could distract Israel from action on other fronts, including against Iranian-linked targets in Syria or within Iran itself.
Israel’s first strikes on Gaza came when Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nahala was in Tehran to meet with the group’s Iranian backers – a factor that may have contributed to the group’s refusal to drop its threat to retaliate for Israel’s West Bank arrest campaign. . .
“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 is the first major test for Yair Lapid, Israel’s interim prime minister, who took office last month after his predecessor’s government collapsed.
The military operation is a risky gambit for Mr. Lapid, a centrist often ridiculed for his lack of security expertise by his archrival, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister and now leader of the opposition.
The escalation gives Mr. Lapid an opportunity to prove his security credentials to the Israeli electorate, but also leaves him vulnerable to accusations that he is endangering the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.
In Gaza, mourners were already counting the cost of the escalation and mourning the loss of life.
Relatives of Alaa Kadum, a 5-year-old girl who died in Friday’s airstrike, wrapped her body in a white shroud and Palestinian flags, leaving her face uncovered so mourners could kiss her before Friday’s funeral. A bright pink bow tied most of her hair back.
In the past, Israel has blamed militants for civilian deaths, saying they often place their rocket launchers and bases near homes and infrastructure.
At a briefing for international journalists at a military base near the Gaza border in late July, senior Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with army regulations, presented maps showing the routes of what they said were part of the militants’ tunnel network. including sections under roads around a major university in Gaza.
The duration and scope of the hostilities will depend in part on the involvement of Hamas.
Ismail Haniya, leader of the Hamas politburo, said on Friday that the group was “open to all directions.” On Saturday, he said he had spoken to mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the UN.
But on Saturday, Israeli military spokesman Ran Kochav told Israeli public radio that the fighting would last at least a week.
Raja Abdulrahim, Carol Sutherland and Feidy Hanona provided reporting.