Israeli airstrikes flattened homes in Gaza on Saturday and rocket barrages into southern Israel persisted, raising fears of an escalation in a conflict that has killed at least 15 people in the coastal strip.
The fighting began with Israel’s killing of a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in a wave of strikes Friday that Israel said were meant to prevent an imminent attack. A 5-year-old girl and two women are among those killed in the strikes.
So far, Hamas, the larger militant group that rules Gaza, appeared to stay on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat contained. Israel and Hamas fought a war barely a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several smaller battles over the last 15 years that wreaked a staggering cost to the impoverished territory’s 2 million Palestinian residents.
Whether Hamas continues to stay out of the fight likely depends in part on how much punishment Israel inflicts in Gaza as rocket fire steadily continues.
One rocket barrage was fired toward Tel Aviv, setting off sirens that sent residents to shelters, but the rockets were either intercepted or fell into the sea, the military said.
Sunday could be a critical day in the flare-up, as Jews mark Tisha B’av, a somber day of fasting that commemorates the destruction of the biblical temples. Thousands are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and Israeli media reported that the Israeli leadership was expected to allow lawmakers to visit a key hilltop holy site 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 isn’t interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but will not shy away from one either.”
“This government has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempted attacks — of any kind — from Gaza towards Israeli territory,” he said. “Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who are trying to harm its civilians.”
The violence poses an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of elections in November, when he hopes to keep the position.
Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has experience in diplomacy having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has thin security credentials. A conflict with Gaza could burnish his standing and give him a boost as he faces off against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country during three of its four wars with Hamas.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle barely a year after the last war caused widespread devastation. There has been almost no reconstruction since then, and the isolated coastal territory is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%. Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the territory since the Hamas takeover in 2007.
Egypt on Saturday intensified efforts to prevent escalation, communicating with Israel, the Palestinians and the United States to keep Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligence official said. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
The Palestinian Health Ministry put the toll at 15 killed and said more than 80 were wounded. The ministry did not differentiate between civilians and militants. The Israeli military said early estimates were that around 15 fighters were killed.
The latest round of Israel-Gaza violence was rooted in the arrest earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, part of a monthlong Israeli military operation in the territory. A teen Islamic Jihad member was also killed in a gunbattle.
Israel then closed roads around Gaza and sent reinforcements to the border, warning of retaliation. On Friday, it killed Islamic Jihad’s commander for northern Gaza, Taiseer al-Jabari, in a strike on a Gaza City apartment building.
An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.
Other Israeli strikes overnight largely hit on the outskirts of Gaza City or in rural areas, targeting what Israel said were rocket launchers, rocket building sites and Islamic Jihad camps.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reserve soldiers if needed while the military announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and limits placed on activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
Hamas seized power in Gaza from rival Palestinian forces in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew from the coastal strip. Its most recent war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions soared again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site.
Iran-backed Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but largely shares its ideology. Both groups oppose Israel’s existence and have carried out scores of deadly attacks over the years, including the firing of rockets into Israel.