TEL AVIV – Israeli airstrikes hit several targets in the Gaza Strip on Friday, causing Palestinian militants to fire back dozens of rockets in the deadliest escalation in violence in the area since an 11-day war last year.
The Israeli airstrikes hit residential apartments, militant watchtowers and outposts, killing a militant leader and at least nine other people, including a 5-year-old girl, according to Gaza’s health ministry.
United Nations officials tried to negotiate a ceasefire, but militants continued to fire rockets Friday night, raising the risk of a longer-lasting conflict that diplomats and analysts feared could last into next week.
Israel said its attacks were a preemptive effort to prevent an imminent attack on Israeli civilians from Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in Gaza. An early airstrike killed Taysir al-Jabari, a senior military leader of the group, according to both Islamic Jihad and the Israeli military. Israel launched new attacks later on Friday after the Palestinians fired back.
The range and number of rockets fired from Gaza deep into Israeli territory posed a greater threat than any barrage launched from the enclave since the war in May 2021. Militants in Gaza fire rockets at Israel several times a year, but mostly over short distances and into the countryside.
“The enemy has started a war against our people, and we all have to defend ourselves and our people,” said an Islamic Jihad statement.
Israeli broadcasters showed the missiles flying over Israeli territory before being intercepted by missiles from an Israeli air defense system known as Iron Dome. Interceptions were reported in the skies as far north as Yavne, a city in central Israel just south of Tel Aviv, while air-raid sirens sounded all night over large parts of the south, indicating heavy overhead rocket fire.
Several cities in southern Israel have opened their public air raid shelters as a precaution, with two Israelis injured while seeking shelter.
The escalation followed one of the least violent phases in Gaza for several years. Both Israel and Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, had previously indicated that they wanted to avoid another large-scale war over the enclave, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007.
There have been relatively few cross-border firefights since May 2021, as tensions shifted to the occupied West Bank and Israel itself.
But over the past week, the possibility of another conflict in Gaza resurfaced — this time not with Hamas, but with Islamic Jihad. Israel arrested one of the senior commanders of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank this week, sparking threats of reprisal from its leaders in Gaza.
Israel closed border crossings into the Gaza Strip this week in anticipation of a retaliatory attack after the arrest, and closed Israeli roads on the outskirts of Gaza.
As of Friday, Islamic Jihad had not yet responded to that arrest with an attack, but Israel said it was about to do so, and had therefore 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 first airstrikes.
The length and intensity of the escalation may be partly determined by whether Hamas joins Islamic Jihad in responding to the fire.
In the past, Hamas has occasionally sat on the sidelines when Islamic Jihad clashed with Israel, and the group did not immediately rule out that approach being repeated Friday.
“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. .
UN officials tried late Friday to persuade all parties to resign.
In the wake of the initial attacks, plumes of smoke billowed over Gaza’s skyline. On the ground, crowds of rescuers, medics and onlookers gathered in 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 after a period of heightened violence in Israel and the West Bank.
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 were caught in that violence in the West Bank, including Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American broadcaster who was shot dead while reporting an Israeli raid in May.
Gaza has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized control of the coastal strip in 2007. This blockade places severe restrictions on what is allowed in the enclave and who is allowed out.
Israel says the blockade is necessary to stop the flow of weapons to Palestinian militants there, but Palestinians and aid organizations say it is a punitive measure that exacerbates dire economic and social conditions in the strip. Palestinian officials said dozens of people scheduled to go to the West Bank for medical treatment were among those unable to leave Gaza due to this week’s closures.
Hamas has repeatedly stated in recent months that it does not want a major new military escalation in Gaza, partly to prevent the humanitarian situation from deteriorating so soon after the devastation of last year’s war.
Gaza authorities are still repairing buildings damaged or destroyed during last May’s fighting; Hamas and Islamic Jihad are still replenishing their missile depots; and Gazans are reluctant to lose certain concessions Israel made after last year’s war — including an increase in the number of Israeli work permits allocated to Gazans, a major lifeline to Gaza’s economy.
Ronen Bergman reported from Tel Aviv and Patrick Kingsley from Ménerbes, France. Jonathan Rosen contributed from Jerusalem, Fady Hanona from Gaza City and Iyad Abu Hweila from Antalya, Turkey.