Israeli air strikes killed a senior militant commander in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian militants fired rockets toward Jerusalem on Friday, further escalating the most violent flare-up in months despite efforts to broker a ceasefire.
An Israeli air strike killed two Palestinians in a residential building in Gaza City in the afternoon, according to the Palestinian health ministry.
The Israeli military said it had targeted a senior commander of the Islamic Jihad movement. The Islamic Jihad confirmed that the air strike killed Iyad Al-Hassani, a member of the decision-making council in the group’s armed wing. He is the sixth senior Islamic Jihad member to be killed in this round of fighting.
Earlier in the day, bursts of rocket fire from Gaza sent warning sirens wailing as far north as the contested capital of Jerusalem – about 77 kilometres from the Gaza border – breaking a 12-hour lull that had raised hopes regional powers could soon broker a truce.
The fighting, which started on Tuesday, between Israel and Islamic Jihad – the second-largest militant group in Gaza after the territory’s Hamas rulers – has killed at least 33 Palestinians in the strip, including women and children, and an 80-year-old woman in central Israel, identified in Israeli media as Inga Avramian.
As Islamic Jihad stepped up its longer-range rocket attacks, a projectile slammed into an open field in the Israeli settlement of Bat Ayin, south of Jerusalem, said Josh Hasten, a spokesperson for the area. Residents in nearby Israeli settlements reported hearing explosions. Dull thuds could be heard inside Jerusalem, home to major sites holy to Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
“The bombing of Jerusalem sends a message,” Islamic Jihad said in a statement. “What is happening in Jerusalem is not separate from Gaza.”
In response, the Israeli warplanes struck Islamic Jihad military posts and mortar shell launchers across the Gaza Strip, the military said.
The office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was conducting a security assessment to mount a further response. “We continue,” he tweeted.
The Israeli military urged residents living within 40 kilometres of the Gaza boundary to remain close to bomb shelters and limit public gatherings until Saturday evening. All big events, including the weekly Saturday protest against the government’s divisive plans to overhaul the judiciary, were cancelled.
The sirens wailing near Jerusalem on Friday took some back to the spring of 2021, when Hamas fired rockets toward the city, which helped set off a bloody 11-day Gaza war. At that time, the militant group cited a provocative far-right march through the Palestinian neighbourhoods of Jerusalem as one of the reasons for its rocket barrage, along with the displacement of Palestinians from the city’s east.
Israeli police said they will allow the same Jewish ultranationalist parade – meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem – to take place next Thursday.
Since Tuesday, Israeli strikes have killed five senior Islamic Jihad figures and hit at least 215 targets in Gaza, including rocket launch sites and militants preparing to use them. Islamic Jihad has retaliated with over 900 rockets fired toward densely populated parts of Israel.
Israeli bombs and shells have destroyed 47 housing units, and damaged 19 so badly they were uninhabitable, leaving 165 Palestinians homeless, Gaza’s housing ministry reported. In addition, nearly 300 homes sustained some damage.
Palestinians on Friday surveyed the wreckage from the fighting.
“The dream that we built for our children, for our sons, has ended,” said Belal Bashir, a Palestinian living in Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, whose family home was reduced to a heap of rubble in an air strike late Thursday. He, his young daughters and two-week-old son would have been killed in the thundering explosion if they hadn’t ran outside when they heard shouting, he said.
“We were shocked that our house was targeted,” he added as he pulled his children’s dolls and blankets from a gaping bomb crater.
The Palestinian dead included six children and four women, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry. Two of the children were killed by suspected misfired Palestinian rockets, according to the Israeli military and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights. Over 100 Palestinians have been wounded.
The civilians deaths have drawn condemnation from the Arab world and concern from the United States and Europe. In its past four wars against Hamas, Israel has repeatedly faced accusations of war crimes due to the high civilian death tolls and its use of heavy weapons against the crowded enclave. Israel, in turn, contends that Palestinian militant groups use civilians as human shields by fighting in their midst.
Confrontations between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza have recurred 15 times since Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007. The repeated Israeli bombing campaigns have cast doubt on Netanyahu’s claims of victory and raised serious questions about what the grim routine achieves.
“If the operations were really all that successful, we wouldn’t need them once a year on average, with the time between them becoming shorter,” Amos Harel, the defence affairs commentator for the Haaretz newspaper, wrote in an analysis Friday. “The simple truth is that Israel has no concrete solution for the plight of Gaza or for the security dangers that emanate from the strip.”
Hamas, the de facto civilian government, has sought to maintain its truce with Israel while attempting to keep abysmal living conditions in the blockaded enclave from spiraling since the devastating 2021 war that killed over 260 Palestinians. The group has sat out this round of fighting – as it did a similar burst of violence last summer. In a sign of restraint, Israel has limited its air strikes to Islamic Jihad targets.
Israeli officials and Islamic Jihad figures have sent mixed signals about negotiations for a ceasefire that neighbouring Egypt has pushed for. Senior official Ihsan Attaya complained early Friday that the mediators “have been unable to provide us with any guarantees.” A sticking point has been Islamic Jihad’s demands that Israel cease its policy of targeted killings, Mr. Attaya said.
This week’s battles began when Israel launched simultaneous air strikes that killed three Islamic Jihad commanders along with some of their wives and children as they slept in their homes. Israel said it was retaliating for a barrage of rocket fire launched last week by Islamic Jihad following the death of one of its West Bank members, Khader Adnan, from an 87-day hunger strike while in Israeli custody.
The air strikes and rockets have shifted the focus of long-running conflict back to Gaza after months of surging violence in the occupied West Bank under Israel’s most right-wing government in history.