JERUSALEM — Israeli forces and militants in Gaza continued to exchange air and rocket attacks Saturday, with Israeli airstrikes killing at least 24 inside the enclave since Friday, including the leader of a Palestinian Islamic Jihad brigade, and injuring more than 200 others, according to Palestinian officials.
Militants fired more than 449 rockets toward Israel in retaliation overnight and through Saturday, according to the Israeli military.
A strike in the Jabalya area in northern Gaza late Saturday killed at least five people, including four children, according to witnesses. Videos on social media showed a number of wounded being evacuated by ambulance and what appears to be a young body being carried in a man’s arms.
The Israeli military said its review of video of that incident showed it was caused by a misfired Islamic Jihad rocket, about a third of which have failed to clear the boundaries of the enclave.
The fatal strike occurred an hour and 10 minutes after Israel’s last activity in the area, a spokesman said, while aerial reconnaissance images and intelligence findings show the trajectory of a rocket launched from an Islamic Jihad location.
“We have concrete data that it was their rocket,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht.
Emergency response officials reported no significant injuries from the rocket fire targeting Israel, as thousands of residents of southern and central Israel sheltered in safe rooms or community air raid bunkers. Several civilians reportedly suffered minor injuries as they ran for cover, and two soldiers of the IDF suffered shrapnel wounds, officials said. Multiple brush fires were reported in areas where rockets fell.
Late Saturday, a barrage was directed toward Tel Aviv, where residents reported hearing explosions as the rockets were shot down by Israel’s air-defense system.
The IDF said its Iron Dome air-defense network had intercepted about 95 percent of the rockets. There were no reports of significant property damage. Officials said 81 of the launches had fallen short and landed in Gaza and 14 others had plunged into the sea.
The IDF continued to carry out airstrikes in Gaza, targeting what it said were rocket-manufacturing, storage and launch sites. An official said the strikes had killed several “mid-level” commanders. The fatalities inside the enclave have included multiple civilians, including a 5-year-old girl, according the Palestinian Ministry of Health.
An Israeli official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive issue, said the military was aware of those reports and would investigate the circumstances of the child’s death. He said that the strikes are carefully planned to avoid harming bystanders but that the militants make perfect accuracy impossible by embedding themselves and their weapons within the civilian population.
At least two large buildings near the beach in Gaza City were demolished Saturday. The Israeli official said the buildings had housed command and control centers used by Islamic Jihad. The residents were warned and the buildings evacuated before the strikes occurred, he said.
Military officials said they launched a preemptive attack after detecting signs that Islamic Jihad was moving equipment into place for an “imminent” attack on Israeli civilians in communities near Gaza. Tensions have been mounting between the sides since Israel arrested an Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank on Tuesday.
The initial strike Friday killed Taysir al-Jabari, a top Islamic Jihad leader, when a missile destroyed part of the Palestine Tower apartment building.
“Suddenly, without warning, there was a big explosion and the window glass started to fly,” said Iman Abu Ghanima, 51, who lives in a building next to the blast site. She said she and her family of six, including a pregnant daughter-in-law, ran from the scene and stayed with relatives. It was the second time their apartment has been damaged by Israeli airstrikes; it was also damaged during the 2014 war, she said.
Israel also stepped up its overnight arrests of suspected Islamic Jihad operatives outside Gaza. The IDF said forces had taken 20 men into custody after raids near Hebron, Ramallah and other West Bank locations.
There was no sign that Hamas, the rival militant group that governs Gaza, was taking part in the attacks against Israel, although the group released statements condemning Israel’s airstrikes.
Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas political chief, said Israel bears full responsibility for the fighting. In a call with Egyptian mediators, he demanded an immediate halt to the IDF strikes.
Hamas, which maintains its own stock of weapons and has fought multiple wars with Israel, has not always joined in Islamic Jihad’s fights. Hamas sat out several days of exchanges between Islamic Jihad and Israel in 2019 after Israel killed another top Islamic Jihad commander. Hamas’s actions now could be pivotal in determining whether the fighting escalates. Diplomats from the United Nations and Egypt said they are working to calm tensions. A delegation from Cairo was expected to arrive in Gaza on Saturday, according to media reports.
“The most important thing is whether Hamas is going to intervene or not,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of intelligence research for the Israeli army. “Right now, I think they are sitting on the issue. They are offering moral support to Islamic Jihad, sure, but they don’t hint that they are getting involved. The situation is very fragile.”
Israeli officials hope that conditions are right for a relatively quick end to the violence. In the year since Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war that killed more than 250 Palestinians and 13 people inside Israel, 14,000 Gazans have received permits to work in Israel, a source of vital cash in the enclave that has dried up since Israel sealed the borders amid tensions this week. Rebuilding, mostly funded by outside donors, had begun to pick up pace in recent months.
On a military level, analysts say, Hamas has not had time to fully replenish the supply of rockets it fired in the last war, a possible disincentive to engage in another major battle now. But opinions within the organization are known to be divided, with some Hamas officials outside the enclave more eager for an escalation.
For civilians, the situation inside Gaza is deteriorating quickly. Officials on Saturday shut down the enclave’s sole power plant, which already operated at limited capacity, because of a lack of fuel to run generators. There were lines to buy groceries even as occasional IDF strikes landed elsewhere in the enclave of 2 million people. No inventory has crossed from Israel since Tuesday.
Mahmoud Jaber, 23, had been in line outside a bakery in Gaza City for half an hour and had another hour to wait until he could shop for the 13 people, including seven children, who live in his house.
“We do not know how long the war will last,” he said.
Many families said they had passed a sleepless night, unsettled by the airstrikes in Gaza and the even more frequent explosions of interceptor missiles in the surrounding skies.
“There is no safe place in Gaza,” said Ammar Mansour as he awaited his turn to buy bread Saturday, something he knows to do any time the fighting flares. “There is no hope, no future. I’m 21 years old, and I have experienced four wars.”
Some were grieving those killed. Those mourning included the family of Alaa Qaddoum, the 5-year-old, who was killed by shrapnel or debris on Mansoura Street.
“What was she guilty of, this little girl?” her grandfather Riyad Qaddoum said in a tearful video posted on YouTube. “She was getting ready to start kindergarten. … What was her guilt?”
Balousha reported from Gaza.