The most violent escalation between Israeli and Gaza militants in more than a year extended into a second day on Saturday as airstrikes destroyed residential buildings in Gaza and killed five people, according to Palestinian health officials.
The Israeli military said it raided two Gaza homes belonging to operatives of the militant group Islamic Jihad, describing them as weapons depots. Military officials said advance warnings had been given and residential buildings had been evacuated before the strike.
Islamic Jihad and other smaller Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip have mainly fired rockets at Israeli towns closest to the border of the territory.
Fresh tensions underscore the challenge of preventing a flare-up in Israel and the occupied territories, as both Israeli and Palestinian leaders have divisions and political weakness, the international community looks elsewhere, and hopes of ending the 15-year blockade of the Gaza Strip are slim for Israel and Egypt.
“There is no end in sight to this cycle, and no one seems to want to build any more stable alternatives,” said Professor Nathan J. Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University.
The round of fighting began with Israeli airstrikes on Friday, largely pitting Israel against Gaza’s second-largest militant group, Islamic Jihad. So far, the dominant militia group in Gaza, Hamas, has not been directly involved, raising hopes that the conflict will not escalate into a larger war. However, despite early mediation efforts by foreign diplomats and the United Nations, there appears to be no imminent ceasefire.
The five Palestinians killed Saturday brought the death toll to 15 in two days, according to Gaza health officials. One of those killed Friday was a 5-year-old girl.
Gaza’s only power plant has ceased operations after Israel froze fuel supplies, further reducing power supplies to much of the region.
The fighting began on Friday when Israel launched a pre-emptive air strike to thwart what it said was an imminent attack by Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Earlier this week, Israel arrested a senior Islamic Jihad figure in the West Bank, leading the group to threaten retaliation. Israel said its airstrikes were aimed at deterring the group from carrying out those threats.
An airstrike on Friday killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza and prompted the group to fire back with several rockets and mortar rounds, sending thousands of Israelis into air-raid shelters Friday night.
Since an 11-day war last May, Israel has persuaded Gaza’s militias to avoid violence by offering 14,000 work permits to Palestinian laborers in the area – the highest since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Level.
About 2 million people live in the Gaza Strip, and most do not benefit directly from the new permits. But the permits still provide a vital financial lifeline to thousands of families in the enclave, where nearly one in two are unemployed and only one in 10 have direct access to cleaning, according to UNICEF. water. Complicated medical care is usually not available.
Hamas is concerned about losing this concession, especially as it is still rebuilding military infrastructure damaged in the last war. Hamas has avoided a major escalation in Gaza throughout the year while still encouraging Israel and the West Bank. riots and violence.
But unlike Hamas, Islamic Jihad does not govern the Gaza Strip and is therefore less motivated by small economic concessions.
Rockets and other projectiles fired from Gaza hit at least two Israeli towns on Saturday, injuring at least two soldiers and a civilian, according to Israeli officials and news reports. But according to the Israeli military, most Palestinian rockets either landed in open areas or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system.
The escalation is at least the sixth violence in the strip since Hamas took power in 2007, prompting Israel and Egypt to begin a blockade. Israel is not ready to end the blockade while Hamas is in power, which does not recognize Israel and refuses to end its armed activities.
In the absence of a formal peace process to end the conflict, Gaza’s recurrent violence and intermittent covert diplomacy are seen as an alternative to renegotiating the terms of the Gaza blockade.
“If there is nothing more permanent, both sides resort to violence not to defeat the other – let alone eliminate the other – but only to adjust the terms, but also to cater to their own audiences,” said Mr Brown, a Middle East expert.
This escalation in Gaza may be related to the recent surge in violence in Israel and the West Bank a few months ago.
In April and May, Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians continued to increase, leading to an increase in Israeli attacks on the West Bank, particularly in areas where Israeli officials say the attackers and their instigators came from.
Israeli operations have resulted in nearly nightly arrests in the West Bank over the past few months, culminating in the arrest of Bassem Saadi, a senior Islamic Jihad figure this week.
The escalation is also a reminder of Iran’s long-term influence on Israeli and Palestinian affairs. While Tehran’s nuclear program is seen by Israel as the biggest threat, it also wields regional influence by providing financial and logistical help to militant proxies in the Middle East, such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Gaza’s Islamic Jihad and Hamas.
Analysts say providing support to Palestinian militant groups enables Tehran to destabilize Gaza, the West Bank and the West-backed Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank. That could distract Israel from other actions, including targeting Iran-linked targets in Syria or Iran.
Islamic Jihad leader Ziad Nahara was meeting in Tehran with the group’s Iranian patron when Israel began its strike in Gaza – a factor that may have contributed to the group’s refusal to withdraw its arrests against Israel in the West Bank. Threat of retaliation.
“Because they are completely dependent on the Iranians, they have to do what the Iranians say,” said Kirby Michael, a national security expert at Tel Aviv University’s National Security Institute.
The crisis presents the first major test for Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who took office last month after the collapse of the previous government.
Military action was a risky tactic for Lapid, a centrist who is often mocked for his lack of security experience by his arch-rival, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu , he now leads the opposition.
The escalation gave Rapid a chance to prove his security credentials to Israeli voters, but also made him vulnerable to accusations that he was endangering Israeli and Palestinian lives.
In Gaza, mourners are already counting the cost of the escalation and mourning the loss of life.
Images showed relatives of Alaa Qadoum, a 5-year-old girl killed in an airstrike on Friday, wrapped her body in a white shroud and a Palestinian flag, leaving her face uncovered, leaving mourners on Friday Kiss her before burial. A bright pink bow tied most of her hair back.
Israel has in the past blamed militants for civilian deaths, saying they often place rocket launchers and bases near civilian homes and infrastructure.
At a briefing for international journalists at a military base near the Gaza border in late July, senior Israeli military officials, who requested anonymity under army rules, showed maps showing the routes of what they said were part of a network of militant tunnels, Including the section below the road around a major university in Gaza.
The length and scope of the fighting will depend in part on Hamas’ involvement.
Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of the Hamas Politburo, said on Friday that the group was “open to all directions”. On Saturday, he said he had spoken to mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations.
But on Saturday, Israeli military spokesman Ran Kochav told Israel Public Radio that the fighting would continue for at least a week.
Raja Abdulrahim, Carol Sutherland and Fady Hanona contributed reporting.