The most violent conflict in more than a year between Israel and Gaza militants expanded into a second day on Saturday, with airstrikes that destroyed residential buildings and killed five people in Gaza, according to Palestinian health officials.
The Israeli military said it hit two homes in Gaza that belonged to agents of the Islamic Jihad militant group that it described as gun shops. Military officials said advance warnings had been issued and residential buildings had been evacuated before the strikes.
Islamic Jihad and other smaller Palestinian militant groups in Gaza mainly fired rockets at Israeli towns closest to the edge of the area.
The renewed tensions highlighted the challenge of preventing flare-ups in Israel and the occupied territories when both Israeli and Palestinian leaders are divided and politically weak, international attention is elsewhere and there is little hope of ending the 15-year blockade of the Gaza Strip. end by Israel and Egypt.
“There is no end in sight to this cycle and no actor seems to want to build a more stable alternative,” said Prof. Nathan J. Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University.
This round of battle, which began Friday with Israeli airstrikes, has primarily pitted Israel against Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in Gaza. Hamas, the dominant militia in Gaza, has so far stayed away from direct involvement, raising hopes that the conflict would not escalate into a bigger war. Yet no ceasefire appeared imminent, despite early mediation efforts by foreign diplomats and the United Nations.
The five Palestinians killed on Saturday brought the death toll to 15 in two days, according to Gaza health officials. One of the dead on Friday was a 5-year-old girl.
The only power plant in Gaza stopped working due to a cessation of fuel deliveries from Israel, further reducing power supply in large parts of the territory.
The fighting started on Friday when Israel launched preemptive airstrikes to thwart an imminent Islamic Jihad attack in Gaza. Earlier this week, Israel had arrested a high-ranking Islamic Jihad figure in the West Bank, sparking threats of reprisal from the group. Israel said its airstrikes were intended to prevent the group from carrying out these threats.
An airstrike on Friday killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza, prompting the group to return fire with several rocket and mortar barrages that sent thousands of Israelis into air raid shelters overnight.
Since an 11-day war in May last year, Israel has persuaded militias in Gaza to avoid violence by offering 14,000 work permits to Palestinian workers in the area — the highest since Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007.
About two million people live in Gaza and most of them will not benefit directly from the new permits. But the permits nonetheless provide a crucial financial lifeline for thousands of families in the enclave, where nearly one in two are unemployed and only one in 10 has direct access to clean water, according to UNICEF. Complex medical treatments are often not available.
Wary of losing that concession, especially while it is still rebuilding military infrastructure damaged in the last war, Hamas has avoided a major escalation in Gaza all year while continuing unrest and violence in Israel. and encouraged the West Bank.
But Islamic Jihad, which, unlike Hamas, does not rule Gaza, is less motivated by small economic concessions.
Rockets and other projectiles fired from Gaza hit at least two Israeli cities on Saturday, wounding at least two soldiers and a civilian, according to Israeli officials and news reports. But most Palestinian missiles either fell in open areas or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, the Israeli military said.
The escalation is at least the sixth wave of violence in the strip since Hamas took control in 2007, prompting Israel and Egypt to begin their blockade. Israel is unwilling to end the blockade as long as Hamas is in power, and Hamas does not recognize Israel and refuses to end its armed activities.
In the absence of a formal peace process to end the conflict, the repeated rounds of violence in Gaza, as well as periodic outbursts of back-channel diplomacy, are seen as alternative ways to renegotiate the terms of the Gaza blockade.
“For want of anything permanent, both sides resort to violence, not to beat the other side – let alone eliminate – but only to adjust the terms, and also to play in front of the home crowd,” he said. Mr Brown, the Middle East expert.
This escalation in Gaza can be linked to a recent spike in violence in Israel and the West Bank several months ago.
The increasing Palestinian attacks on civilians in Israel in April and May led to an increase in Israeli attacks in the West Bank, particularly in areas where Israeli officials said the attackers and their accomplices came from.
The Israeli campaign has resulted in near-night arrests in the West Bank in recent months and culminated this week in the arrest of Bassem Saadi, a high-ranking figure of Islamic Jihad.
The escalation was also a reminder of Iran’s long shadow over Israeli and Palestinian affairs. While Tehran’s nuclear program is seen by Israel as the greatest threat, it also exerts regional influence by providing financial and logistical aid to militant accomplices in the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza.
By providing support to Palestinian militant groups, Tehran could destabilize Gaza, the West Bank and the West-backed Palestinian Authority, which controls parts of the West Bank, analysts say. This could distract Israel from action on other fronts, including against Iran-affiliated targets in Syria or in Iran itself.
Israel’s inaugural strikes in Gaza took place as Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala visited Tehran to meet with the group’s Iranian patrons – a factor that may have contributed to the group’s refusal to threat to avenge Israel’s arrest campaign in the West Bank. .
“Because of their complete dependence on the Iranians, they have to do what the Iranians tell them to do,” said Kobi Michael, a national security expert at the Institute of National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.
The crisis presented a first major test for Yair Lapid, Israel’s interim prime minister, who took office last month after his predecessor’s government fell.
The military operation is a risky gamble for Mr Lapid, a centrist often mocked for his lack of security experience by his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who now heads the opposition.
The escalation gives Mr. Lapid has the opportunity to prove his security credentials to the Israeli electorate, but it also exposes him to charges that he is endangering both Israeli and Palestinian lives.
In Gaza, mourners were already counting the cost of the escalation and mourning the loss of life.
Relatives of Alaa Qadoum, the 5-year-old girl who died in an airstrike on Friday, wrapped her body in a white shroud and Palestinian flags, showed images, and left her face uncovered so mourners could kiss her before her funeral on Friday. . A bright pink bow tied most of her hair back.
Israel has in the past blamed militants for civilian deaths, saying they often station their rocket launchers and bases close to civilian homes and infrastructure.
During a briefing for international reporters at a military base near the Gaza border in late July, senior Israeli military officials, on condition of anonymity under military rules, presented maps showing the routes of what they believe were parts of a militant tunnel network. including sections that run under roads around a major university in Gaza.
The duration and scale of the fighting will depend in part on Hamas’ involvement.
Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas’ political bureau, said Friday the group is “open to all directions”. On Saturday, he said he had spoken with mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations.
But on Saturday, an Israeli military spokesman, Ran Kochav, told Israeli public radio that the fighting would last at least a week.
Raja Abdulrahim, Carol Sutherland and Fady Hanona reported.