TEL AVIV – Israeli airstrikes Friday hit multiple targets in the Gaza Strip, killing several people, including a senior Palestinian militant group commander, in the deadliest escalation of violence in the territory since last year’s 11-day war.
The strikes hit residential buildings as well as militant watchtowers, killing at least 10 people, including a 5-year-old girl, and injuring 55 people, the Gaza Health Ministry said. The airstrike killed Tayseer al-Jabari, a senior military leader of Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in Gaza, according to both Islamic Jihad and the Israeli military.
The escalation followed one of the least violent phases in Gaza in several years. Since the May 2021 war, there have been relatively few cross-border skirmishes as tensions have shifted to the occupied West Bank. Both Israel and Hamas, the paramilitary group that dominates Gaza, have signaled they are keen to avoid another all-out war over the enclave that has been blockaded by Israel and Egypt since 2007.
But Friday’s violence prompted warnings of retaliation from Palestinian militants and raised the possibility of a protracted conflict.
The airstrikes follow nearly a week of rising tensions between Israel and Islamic Jihad, which often operate independently of Hamas. This week Israel arrested one of the group’s senior commanders in the West Bank, leading to threats of retaliation from the Gaza leadership.
Israel stated that Islamic Jihad was prepared to respond with a retaliatory attack and that Mr. Javier was its target. al-Jabari and others in advance.
“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 attack.
This week, Israel closed checkpoints in the Gaza Strip in anticipation of a retaliatory attack following an arrest in the West Bank.
After the airstrikes, Islamic Jihad said it would retaliate with force, and cities in southern Israel opened air raid shelters in anticipation of rocket fire from Gaza.
“The enemy has started a war against our people, and we must all defend ourselves and our people,” Islamic Jihad said in a statement.
Hours later, Palestinian militants fired numerous rockets into Israeli airspace, and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties.
It was not immediately clear whether Hamas would join Islamic Jihad in response. In the past, Hamas sometimes sat on sides when Islamic Jihad clashed with Israel.
“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. .
Smoke billowed from the Gaza skyline and 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 shifted the focus of the conflict back to Gaza. 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 taken by surprise, including Shirin Abu Akle, a Palestinian-American TV presenter. fatal shot while covering an Israeli raid in May.
Fadi Hanona and Iyad Abu Khweila reported from Gaza.