TEL AVIV — Israeli airstrikes hit several targets in the Gaza Strip on Friday, killing a number of people, including a senior commander of a Palestinian militant group, in the deadliest escalation of violence in the territory for a 11 day war last year.
The strikes hit residential apartments as well as militant watchtowers, killing at least 10 people, including a 5-year-old girl, and injuring 55, the Gaza health ministry said. An airstrike killed Taysir al-Jabari, a senior military official in Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in Gaza, according to Islamic Jihad and the Israeli military.
The escalation followed one of the least violent phases in Gaza for several years. After the May 2021 war, there was relatively little cross-border exchange of fire, with tensions shifting to the occupied West Bank. Israel and Hamas, the militant group that dominates Gaza, had signaled they were seeking to avoid another full-scale war for the enclave, which has been under Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007.
But Friday’s violence prompted warnings of reprisals from Palestinian militant groups and raised the possibility of a protracted conflict.
The airstrikes followed nearly a week of growing tensions between Israel and Islamic Jihad, which often operates independently of Hamas. Israel arrested one of the group’s senior commanders in the West Bank this week, prompting threats of retaliation from its Gaza leadership.
Israel said Islamic Jihad was poised to respond with a revenge attack and had preemptively targeted al-Jabari and others.
“Israel will not allow terrorist organizations to set the agenda in the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of the State of Israel,” Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid said shortly after the attack. .
Israel closed crossings into the Gaza Strip this week in anticipation of a retaliatory attack following the arrest in the West Bank.
After the airstrikes, Islamic Jihad said it would respond with force, and towns in southern Israel opened bomb shelters in anticipation of rocket fire from Gaza.
“The enemy has started a war targeting our people and we must all defend ourselves and our people,” an Islamic Jihad statement said.
Hours later, Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets into Israeli airspace, and Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility. There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties.
It was not immediately clear whether Hamas would join Islamic Jihad in responding. In the past, Hamas has sometimes sat in the on the sidelines while Islamic Jihad opposed Israel.
“As we mourn leader al-Jabari and the righteous martyrs, we affirm that things are open to all directions, calling for an end to the Zionist aggression against our people,” said Ismail Haniyeh, head of the political bureau Hamas, in a statement. .
Plumes of smoke rose above the Gaza skyline and on the ground, crowds of rescuers, medics and onlookers gathered in the street near where the Islamic Jihad commander had been kill. Photographs posted online showed him being carried through a crowd and a grieving man carrying what appeared to be a dead child covered in a shroud.
The airstrikes shifted the focus of the conflict to Gaza. Since March, Palestinian assailants have killed at least 19 Israelis and foreigners in the West Bank and Israel, in the most intense wave of stabbings and shootings in several years. In response, Israel staged near-night raids in the West Bank, arresting hundreds of Palestinians and killing more than 40, according to the United Nations.
Several civilians were caught up in the violence, including Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American animator beaten down while covering an Israeli raid in May.
Fady Hanona and Iyad Abu Hweila contributed reporting from Gaza City.