Israeli forces launched airstrikes on the Gaza Strip on Friday, killing at least 12 people, including a senior figure in the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group.
The militant group responded by firing dozens of missiles into Israel, triggering warning sirens in the south and center of the country, in the biggest flare-up of tensions since an 11-day war in Gaza last May.
Israeli airstrikes and Islamic Jihad rocket fire continued on Saturday. Israel’s military said Israeli forces had arrested 19 members of Islamic Jihad in the occupied West Bank overnight.
Israeli officials said they carried out Friday’s attack in Gaza in response to an “imminent threat” and that Taysir al-Jabari, Islamic Jihad’s commander in northern Gaza, was among 15 militants killed.
Gaza’s health ministry said 12 people, including a five-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman, had been killed and 84 wounded.
The escalation comes after a week of rising tensions following the arrest on Monday in the West Bank of Bassam al-Saadi, another senior Islamic Jihad figure, which led to fears of retaliation by the militant group.
Islamic Jihad said on Friday it had fired more than 100 rockets in response to the Israeli airstrikes. An Israeli military official said 74 missiles had been fired and 63 had reached Israel, but that with the exception of one that hit a road, all had fallen on empty ground or been intercepted.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, in addition to al-Jabari, said the Israeli strikes targeted “a cell preparing to launch an anti-tank missile attack against Israel”.
“Anyone who tries to harm Israel should know: We will find you,” he said. “The security forces will act against Islamic Jihad terrorists to eliminate the threat they pose to the citizens of Israel.”
Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, said Israel had “launched a new violent escalation . . . and committed a new crime against the Palestinian people”.
“The Palestinian resistance factions are united in this struggle and will not be silent,” he said.
The Israel Defense Forces said army reserves had been mobilized to deal with retaliation by Islamic Jihad, or Hamas. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars in Gaza since 2007, including an 11-day conflict last year.
Israel has declared a “special situation” and restricted civilian activity within an 80km radius of Gaza, a 365 square kilometer stretch bordered between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea that is home to more than 2 million. poor Palestinians.
Some roads in southern Israel adjacent to Gaza were closed earlier this week by Israeli authorities following the arrest of al-Saadi.
Shaul Shay, a former IDF intelligence officer now teaching at Reichman University, said whether the confrontation escalated more dramatically would depend on Hamas’s stance.
“The main question is how far [Hamas] is ready to go to control Islamic Jihad,” he said. “If they want, they can theoretically accommodate them. But I don’t see them going to an armed confrontation with Islamic Jihad on behalf of Israel. It’s not going to work.”
Islamic Jihad, which is supported by Iran, shares Hamas’ opposition to Israel’s existence. But it is smaller and separate from Hamas, although the two groups often cooperate.
Reuven Berko, a former adviser on Arab affairs to Israel’s then-civil administration in the Gaza Strip, said al-Jabari had been considered “a very senior commander” in Islamic Jihad and that his killing had struck “at the heart” of the group’s operations.