Israel and Gaza militants exchange fire after deadly strikes

The fighting that began on Friday with Israel’s dramatic killing of a prominent leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement continued through the night, bringing the parties closer to all-out war. But it appears that Hamas leaders in the region have remained on the sidelines of the conflict, and kept its intensity somewhat contained, for the time being. Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and many small battles over the past fifteen years at a staggering cost to the two million Palestinian residents of the Strip.

The latest round of violence between Israel and Gaza erupted after the arrest of a prominent Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank this week, as part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the Strip. Claiming a security threat, Israel then closed roads around the Gaza Strip and on Friday killed the active leader in a targeted raid.

An explosion was heard in Gaza City, as smoke rose from the seventh floor of a high-rise building. A video released by the Israeli military showed the strikes that blew up three guard towers suspected of being militants.

In a nationally televised address on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country launched the attacks on the basis of “concrete threats.”

“This government has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempt to launch attacks – of any kind – from Gaza towards Israeli territory,” Lapid said. “Israel will not stand idly by when someone is trying to harm civilians.”

“Israel is not interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but it will not give up on one either.” he added.

The violence is an early test for Lapid, who took over as caretaker prime minister before elections in November, when he hopes to retain the job. Lapid, a former centrist presenter and television writer, has experience in diplomacy after serving as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but his security credentials are poor. The conflict with Gaza could polish his profile and give it a boost as he faces off against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the security hawk who led the country through 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 that caused widespread destruction. There has been almost no reconstruction since, and the isolated coastal region is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%.

The Palestinian Ministry of Health said a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were among the dead in Gaza, without distinguishing between civilian and armed victims. The Israeli army said initial estimates indicated that about 15 fighters had been killed. Dozens were injured.

Islamic Jihad said Taysir al-Jabari, its leader in northern Gaza, was among the dead. He succeeded another militant who was killed in an airstrike in 2019. This led to a violent round of fighting between Israel and the armed group. An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two groups of militants armed with anti-tank missiles. The spokesman, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said Jabari was deliberately targeted and was responsible for “multiple attacks” on Israel.

Hundreds marched at a funeral for him and the other dead, and many mourners waved the flags of Palestine and Islamic Jihad, calling for revenge.

Israeli media showed that the sky over southern and central Israel was lit up by missiles and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. It was not immediately clear how many rockets were fired, and there were no immediate reports of casualties on the Israeli side.

Mourners carry the body of Taysir al-Jabari, the leader of Islamic Jihad, who was killed during Israeli air strikes on his apartment in Gaza City, August 5, 2022 (AP)

During the night, Israel bombed rocket launchers, rocket-building sites, and Islamic Jihad sites. The army said it also arrested 19 Islamic Jihad activists in the West Bank.

“The rocket fire must stop immediately, and I call on all parties to avoid further escalation,” said the UN special envoy for the region, Tor Wencesland.

In the wake of the initial Israeli strikes, a few hundred people gathered outside the morgue at the main Shifa Hospital in Gaza City. Some went to recognize their loved ones and later came out in tears.

“God takes revenge on the spies,” shouted one of them, referring to Palestinian informants who cooperate with Israel.

Defense Secretary Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reservists if needed while the military declared a “special status” on the home front, with schools closed and activities restricted in communities 80 kilometers from the border.

Israel closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it prepares for a retaliatory attack after the arrest of Islamic Jihad leader Bassam al-Saadi on Monday in a military raid in the occupied West Bank. A member of the group was killed in a gun battle between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen.

Hamas seized power in the coastal enclave from rival Palestinian forces in 2007. Its last war with Israel was in May 2021. Tensions escalated again earlier this year after a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions At a holy site hotspot in Jerusalem. Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

The leader of Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhala, said in an interview with the Iranian Al-Mayadeen network that “the Palestinian resistance fighters must stand together to confront this aggression.” He said there would be no “red lines” and blamed Israel for the violence.

“The Israeli enemy, which started the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and bear full responsibility for it,” said Fawzi Barhoum, a Hamas spokesman.

Iran-backed Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but largely shares its ideology. Both groups oppose Israel’s existence and have carried out dozens of deadly attacks over the years, including firing rockets into Israel. It is unclear how much control Hamas has over Islamic Jihad, and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza.

Israel and Egypt have imposed a severe blockade on the Strip since the Hamas takeover. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities. Critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.

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