TEL AVIV – Israeli airstrikes struck several targets in the Gaza Strip on Friday, killing several people, including a senior commander of a Palestinian militant group, in the deadliest escalation of violence in the area since an 11-day war last year.
The attacks hit both residential apartments and militant watchtowers, killing at least 10 people, including a 5-year-old girl, and injuring 55, the Gaza health ministry said. An airstrike killed Taysir al-Jabari, a senior military leader in 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 for several years. After the war in May 2021, there were relatively few cross-border firefights as tensions shifted to the occupied West Bank. Both Israel and Hamas, the militant group that dominates Gaza, have indicated that they are trying to avoid another large-scale war over the enclave, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007.
But Friday’s violence sparked warnings of retaliation from Palestinian militant groups and raised the possibility of a protracted conflict.
The airstrikes followed nearly a week of mounting tensions between Israel and Islamic Jihad, which often operates independently of Hamas. Israel this week arrested one of the group’s top commanders in the West Bank, sparking threats of reprisal from its leaders in Gaza.
Islamic Jihad had not yet responded to the arrest with an attack, but Israel said it was about to do so and had preemptively attacked Mr al-Jabari and others.
“Israel will not allow the terrorist organizations to set the agenda in the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of the State of Israel,” Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid said shortly after the attack.
Israel closed border crossings into the Gaza Strip this week in anticipation of a retaliatory attack after its arrest in the West Bank.
After the airstrikes, Islamic Jihad said it would respond 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 all have to defend ourselves and our people,” said an Islamic Jihad statement.
It was not immediately clear whether Hamas would join Islamic Jihad. In the past, Hamas has occasionally sat on the sidelines when Islamic Jihad clashed with Israel.
“As we mourn the leader al-Jabari and the righteous martyrs, we affirm that matters are open to all directions and call for an end to Zionist aggression against our people,” said Ismail Haniyeh, head of the political bureau from Hamas, in a statement. .
Plumes of smoke billowed over the Gaza skyline and crowds of rescuers, medics and onlookers gathered on the street near where the Islamic Jihad commander had been killed. Photos posted online showed him being carried by a mob and a grieving man carrying a dead child covered in a shroud.
The airstrikes 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, according to the United Nations, Israel has staged near-night raids on the West Bank, arresting hundreds of Palestinians and killing more than 40.
Several civilians have been caught in the violence, including Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American broadcaster who was shot dead in May while reporting an Israeli raid.
Fady Hanona and Iyad Abu Hweila contributed from Gaza City.