Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip for a second day in what it described as a “pre-emptive operation” against a Palestinian militant group, in the worst escalation of violence since last year’s 11-day war.
Israeli warplanes struck several sites in the blocked territory on Friday, in a surprise operation codenamed “Breaking Dawn” which the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said foiled alleged rocket attacks planned by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. While sometimes acting independently, Islamic Jihad is aligned with Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the strip.
As the exchange of fire continued and Israel appeared to be expanding the operation on Saturday morning, health authorities in the Palestinian coastal enclave said 12 people had been killed by Israeli airstrikes, including an Islamic Jihad commander, Tayseer Jabari, and civilians, including a five-year-old man. 22 year old girl and art student. About 80 other people were injured.
Islamic Jihad called Israel’s first bombardment a “declaration of war”, firing a barrage of at least 100 rockets into southern Israel on Friday night. There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage, with numerous rockets intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system, but 13 people were taken to hospital with minor injuries.
The hostilities have left Gazans scared of another round of war, which would be Gaza’s fourth serious conflict since Hamas seized control of the strip in 2007. Israel and Egypt have closed the strip’s borders a year later, leaving the region’s 2 million people struggling with unemployment, crumbling medical infrastructure and little electricity and drinking water.
Hamas announced its support for Islamic Jihad and said it would also respond to strikes. “The resistance, with all of its arms and military factions, is united in this campaign and will have the final say,” the group said in a statement.
Egypt, historically a mediator between Israel and armed groups in Gaza, said it had been told by Israel that Breaking Dawn would be a smaller-scale assault, but no negotiations have yet been opened.
The weekend violence comes after days of tension sparked by the arrest of Bassem al-Saadi, the commander-in-chief of Islamic Jihad in the occupied West Bank. The IDF has carried out near-night raids across the West Bank since mid-March in response to a wave of Palestinian terror attacks against Israeli citizens.
While Islamic Jihad did not launch rockets after Saadi’s arrest, Israel insisted throughout the week that the group was seeking revenge, closing the Erez crossing used by Palestinians in Gaza to enter Israel, closing roads and restricting the movement of civilians in southern Israel as a precaution.
Israeli tanks and armor lined up along the border on Friday, after the army said on Thursday it was reinforcing its troops.
“Israel is not interested in a broader conflict in Gaza, but it will not shy away from it either,” Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised address on Friday.
The Gaza Strip has remained relatively calm since the war in May last year, which killed 256 people in Gaza and 14 people in Israel.
Israel elected a coalition government a month later that included members of an independent Arab-Israeli party for the first time, opposed to escalation with the Palestinians. He also increased the number of work permits for Palestinians from Gaza to enter Israel in a bid to alleviate the strip’s crushing poverty.
The short-lived coalition collapsed in June. Lapid, the interim prime minister, is preparing for elections on November 1 in which he faces pressure from the Israeli right to get tough on terrorism.