TEL AVIV – Israeli air strikes hit several targets in the Gaza Strip on Friday, killing a number of people including a prominent leader of a Palestinian armed group, in the deadliest escalation of violence in the Strip since the 11-day war last year.
The Gaza Health Ministry said the strikes targeted apartments and militants’ watchtowers, killing at least 10 people including a 5-year-old girl and wounding 55. One of the airstrikes killed Taysir al-Jabari, a prominent military leader in Islamic Jihad, the second largest armed group in Gaza, according to both Islamic Jihad and the Israel Defense Forces.
The escalation followed one of the least violent phases in Gaza in several years. After the war in May 2021, there were relatively few cross-border shootouts, as tensions spilled over into the occupied West Bank. Both Israel and Hamas, the armed group that dominates Gaza, have indicated they are seeking to avoid another full-scale war on the strip, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007.
But Friday’s violence raised warnings of retaliation by Palestinian armed groups and raised the prospect of the conflict continuing.
The air strikes came on the heels of nearly a week of heightened tensions between Israel and Islamic Jihad, which often operate independently of Hamas. Israel arrested one of the group’s top leaders in the West Bank this week, prompting threats of retaliation against its leadership in Gaza.
Islamic Jihad has yet to respond to the arrest with an attack, but Israel has said it is about to do so, preemptively targeting Mr. Jabari and others.
“Israel will not allow terrorist organizations to set an agenda in the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of the State of Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said shortly after the attack.
Israel closed the crossings into the Gaza Strip this week in anticipation of a retaliatory attack following the arrest in the West Bank.
After the air strikes, Islamic Jihad said it would respond forcefully, and cities in southern Israel opened bomb shelters in anticipation of rocket fire from Gaza.
“The enemy started a war targeting our people, and we all need to defend ourselves and our people,” the Islamic Jihad statement said.
It was not immediately clear whether Hamas would join Islamic Jihad. In the past, Hamas occasionally sat on the sidelines while Islamic Jihad clashed with Israel.
Ismail Haniyeh, head of the Hamas political bureau, said in a statement, “While we mourn the leader Jabari and the righteous martyrs, we affirm that matters are open to all directions, and we call for an end to the Zionist aggression against our people.” .
Plumes of smoke rose over the Gaza skyline and on the ground, and crowds of rescuers, paramedics and onlookers gathered in the street near where the Islamic Jihad leader was killed. Pictures posted online showed him being carried through a crowd, and a sad man holding what appeared to be a dead child covered in a shroud.
Air strikes have turned the focus of the conflict back to Gaza. Since March, Palestinian attackers have killed at least 19 Israelis and foreigners in the West Bank and Israel, in the deadliest wave of stabbings and shootings in several years. In response, Israel launched almost nighttime raids in the West Bank, arresting hundreds of Palestinians and killing more than 40, according to the United Nations.
A number of civilians were killed in the violence, including Shireen Abu Oqla, a Palestinian-American broadcaster who was shot dead while covering an Israeli raid in May.
Fadi Hannouna and Iyad Abu Hweila contributed reporting from Gaza City.