The most violent conflagration in more than a year between Israel and Gaza militants continued for a second day on Saturday, with airstrikes that destroyed residential buildings and killed five more, according to Palestinian health officials.
The Israeli army said it had targeted two Gaza residences belonging to agents of the militant group Islamic Jihad which it described as weapons depots. Military officials said preliminary warnings had been given and that the buildings had been evacuated before the strikes.
Islamic Jihad and other small Palestinian militant groups in Gaza have fired rockets at Israeli cities near the territory and more distant cities in central Israel, including Tel Aviv, sending Israeli bathers to run for cover.
Renewed tensions have highlighted the challenge of preventing flare-ups in Israel and the occupied territories when both Israeli and Palestinian leadership are divided and politically weak, international attention is elsewhere and there is little hope of ending the blockade. of 15 years of the Gaza Strip from Israel and Egypt.
“There is no end in sight for this cycle and no actor seems to want to build a more stable alternative,” said Prof. Nathan J. Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University.
This round of fighting, which began Friday with Israeli airstrikes, has primarily pitted Israel against Islamic Jihad, Gaza’s second largest militant group. Hamas, the dominant militia in Gaza, has remained so far removed from direct involvement, fueling the hope that the conflict will not turn into a wider war.
However, no ceasefire seemed imminent, despite early mediation efforts by foreign diplomats and the United Nations.
The five Palestinians killed on Saturday brought the death toll to 15 in two days, according to Gaza health officials. One of the people killed on Friday was a 5-year-old girl.
At least two Israeli soldiers and one civilian were injured, according to Israeli officials and news reports. But most of the Palestinian rockets fell into open areas or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, according to the military.
The only power plant in Gaza has shut down operations due to the blocking of fuel deliveries from Israel, further reducing power across much of the territory. A senior Israeli military official, speaking to reporters on Saturday on condition of anonymity to comply with army rules, said Israel was connecting with Egypt on how to provide more fuel to Gaza while under rocket fire.
When Israel launched the airstrikes on Friday, it said it was taking preemptive action to prevent an imminent Islamic Jihad attack on Gaza. Earlier in the week, Israel had arrested an elder figure of the group in the West Bank, leading to threats of reprisals. Israel said its airstrikes were aimed at preventing Islamic Jihad from carrying out those threats.
An airstrike on Friday killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza and the group returned fire with rocket and mortar volleys that sent thousands of Israelis to air raid shelters overnight Friday.
After an 11-day war in May last year, Israel convinced militias in Gaza to avoid violence by offering 14,000 work permits to Palestinian workers in the territory, the highest number since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007.
About two million people live in Gaza and most do not receive any direct benefit from the new permits. But the permits still provide a vital financial lifeline for thousands of families in the enclave, where nearly one in two residents are unemployed and only one in 10 have direct access to clean water, according to UNICEF.
Wary of losing that concession, particularly while still rebuilding military infrastructure damaged during the last war, Hamas has avoided a major escalation throughout the year in Gaza, while at the same time encouraging unrest and violence in Israel and the West Bank.
But Islamic Jihad, which, unlike Hamas, does not govern Gaza, is less motivated by small economic concessions.
This is at least the sixth wave of violence in Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007, prompting Israel and Egypt to start their blockade. Israel is not ready to end the blockade while Hamas is in power, and while Hamas does not recognize Israel and refuses to end its armed activities.
In the absence of a formal peace process to end the conflict, repeated waves of violence in Gaza, as well as intermittent outbursts of return diplomacy, are seen as alternative ways to renegotiate the terms of the blockade of Gaza.
“In the absence of something more lasting, both sides resort to violence not to defeat the other party – much less eliminate it – but only to regulate terms and also to play to home audiences,” said Brown, the expert on Middle East.
The last two days of conflict in Gaza can be traced to a peak of violence in Israel and the West Bank several months ago. The increase in Palestinian attacks on civilians in Israel in April and May led to an increase in Israeli raids in the West Bank, particularly in areas from which Israeli officials said the attackers and their accomplices came.
The Israeli campaign has led to near-night arrests across the West Bank in recent months and culminated with the arrest this week of Bassem Saadi, a leading figure in Islamic Jihad.
The new wave of violence has also served as a reminder of Iran’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Tehran’s nuclear program is seen by Israel as the greatest threat, Iran also exerts regional influence by providing financial and logistical aid to delegated militants across the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, Lebanon, and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza.
Israel’s opening attacks in Gaza came during a visit by Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala to Tehran to meet with the group’s Iranian supporters, a factor that may have contributed to the group’s refusal to withdraw from recent threats.
“Because of their full dependence on Iranians, they have to do what the Iranians tell them to do,” said Kobi Michael, a national security expert at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.
The crisis was also the first major test for Yair Lapid, Israel’s interim prime minister, who took office last month after the collapse of his predecessor’s government.
The military operation is a risky move for Lapid, a centrist often derided for the lack of security expertise from his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who now leads the opposition.
While it gives Mr. Lapid a chance to prove his security credentials to the Israeli electorate, it also leaves him exposed to allegations of endangering the lives of both Israel and Palestinians.
In Gaza, mourners were already counting the costs of the two days of fighting.
Relatives of Alaa Qadoum, the 5-year-old girl killed in an airstrike on Friday, wrapped her body in a white shroud and Palestinian flags on Friday. A bright pink bow tied most of her hair back.
“Alaa was a funny little girl who didn’t hurt anyone,” her grandfather, Riad Qadoum, 56, said in an interview. “She was not firing rockets or fighting anyone,” said Mr. Qadoum.
The senior Israeli military official who briefed reporters on Saturday said he was aware of the news of his death and said any civilian deaths would be investigated. But Israel has in the past blamed militants for the deaths of civilians, saying they often place their rocket launchers and bases near civilian homes and infrastructure.
At a separate briefing for reporters at a military base near the Gaza border in late July, senior Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity under army rules, presented maps showing the routes of what they said were. parts of a network of militant tunnels, including sections that run under the streets around a large Gaza university.
The duration and extent of the fighting will depend in part on Hamas’ involvement.
Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas’ political bureau, said on Friday that the group is “open to all directions”.
But on Saturday, an Israeli military spokesman, Ran Kochav, told Israeli public radio that the fighting would last at least a week.
On Sunday, tensions in Jerusalem could aggravate the situation, as Jews mark Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of two ancient Jewish temples, in a place now sacred to both Jews and Muslims. Large numbers of Jewish faithful are expected to visit that site, known as the Aqsa Mosque complex or the Temple Mount.
Such visits often result in unrest that has historically led to more rocket launches from Gaza.
Raja Abdulrahim, Carol Sutherland and Fady Hanona contributed to the reportage.