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Israeli airstrikes razed homes in Gaza on Saturday and Palestinian rocket barrages in southern Israel continued for a second day, raising fears of another major escalation in the Middle East conflict. Gaza’s health ministry said 24 people have been killed so far in the coastal strip, including six children.
The fighting began on Friday with Israel’s killing of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in a wave of attacks that Israel claims are intended to prevent an imminent attack.
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So far, Hamas, the largest militant group ruling Gaza, seemed to remain on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat contained. Israel and Hamas fought a war just a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several minor battles over the past 15 years that took a staggering toll on the 2 million Palestinian residents of the impoverished territory.
Whether Hamas continues to stay out of the fight probably depends in part on how much punishment Israel inflicts on Gaza as rocket firing continues steadily.
The Israeli army said a wandering rocket launched by Palestinian militants killed civilians on Saturday, including children, in the northern Gaza city of Jabaliya. The army said it had investigated the incident and concluded “no doubt” that it was caused by a misfire by Islamic Jihad. There has been no official Palestinian commentary on the incident.
A Palestinian health worker, who was not authorized to inform the media and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the blast killed at least six people, including three children.
On Saturday, Israeli warplanes struck four residential buildings in Gaza City, all apparently linked to Islamic Jihad. There have been no reports of casualties. In any case, Israeli military residents warned ahead of the attacks.
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Another strike hit a car on Saturday, killing a 75-year-old woman and injuring six others.
In one of the attacks, after the warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the home of a member of Islamic Jihad. The blast flattened the two-story structure, leaving a large crater filled with rubble and severely damaged the surrounding houses.
Women and children rushed out of the area.
“Did they warn us? They warned us with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. He said 15 people lived in the targeted house.
Among the 24 Palestinians killed were six children and two women, in addition to the high commander of Islamic Jihad. Gaza’s health ministry said over 200 people were injured. It makes no distinction between civilians and combatants. The Israeli military said on Friday that early estimates were that around 15 fighters would be killed.
The only power plant in Gaza shut down at noon on Saturday due to lack of fuel as Israel has kept its crossing points in Gaza closed since Tuesday. With the new outage, Gazans can get only 4 hours of electricity a day, increasing their dependence on private generators and aggravating the territory’s chronic energy crisis during the peak of summer heat.
Throughout the day, Gaza militants regularly fired rockets at Israel. The Israeli military said on Saturday night that nearly 450 rockets had been launched, 350 of which entered Israel, but nearly all were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. Two people sustained minor shrapnel injuries.
A barrage of rockets was fired towards Tel Aviv, triggering sirens that sent residents to shelters, but the rockets were intercepted or fell overboard, the military said.
Sunday could be a critical day for flare-up, as Jews celebrate Tisha B’av, a summer fasting day that commemorates the destruction of biblical temples. Thousands are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and Israeli media reported that the Israeli leadership should have allowed lawmakers to visit a key sacred site atop a hill in the city that is a flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
On Friday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech that “Israel is not interested in a larger conflict in Gaza, but it will not avoid one.”
The violence represents a first test for Lapid, who has taken on the role of interim prime minister ahead of the November elections, when he hopes to maintain his position.
Lapid, a former TV host and centrist author, has diplomacy experience having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has poor security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could erode his position and give him a boost as he confronts former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country during three of the four wars with Hamas.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle just a year after the last war caused widespread devastation. Since then, there has been hardly any reconstruction and the isolated coastal territory is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%. Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade on the territory since the acquisition of Hamas in 2007.
Egypt stepped up efforts to prevent escalation on Saturday, communicating with Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to prevent Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza was rooted in the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank as part of an Israeli military operation lasting months in the territory. A teenager member of Islamic Jihad was also killed in a fire fight.
Israel then closed the roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, warning of retaliation. On Friday he killed the commander of Islamic Jihad for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in an attack on a Gaza City apartment building.
An Israeli army spokesman said the attacks were in response to an “imminent threat” from two squads of militants armed with anti-tank missiles.
Israel has approved an order to recall 25,000 reserve troops if necessary. Authorities closed schools and imposed limits on other activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
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Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel’s withdrawal from the coastal strip. Its most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tension escalated again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, almost daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions in a holy place of Jerusalem, flash point.
Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but largely shares its ideology. Both groups oppose the existence of Israel and have carried out dozens of deadly attacks over the years, including rocket firing on Israel.