Israel unleashed a wave of air strikes in Gaza on Friday, killing at least 10 people, including a senior militant, and wounding another 40, according to Palestinian officials.
Israel said it was targeting the Islamic Jihad militant group amid days of heightened tensions following the arrest of a senior militant in the occupied West Bank earlier this week.
Palestinian militants launched a barrage of rockets hours later as air raid sirens wailed in central and southern Israel, drawing the sides closer to all-out war.
Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers have fought four wars and several smaller battles over the last 15 years at a staggering cost to the territory’s two million Palestinian residents.
A blast was heard in Gaza City, where smoke poured out of the seventh floor of a tall building on Friday afternoon. Video released by the military showed strikes blowing up three guard towers with suspected militants in them.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country has “zero tolerance” for attacks from Gaza but “no interest” in a broader battle.
The violence poses an early test for Mr Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of elections in November in which he hopes to keep the position.
He has experience in diplomacy, having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but his security credentials are thin.
Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle — barely a year after the last war caused widespread devastation. There has been almost no reconstruction since then, and the isolated coastal territory is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50%.
The Palestinian Health Ministry said 10 people were killed, including a five-year-old girl, and at least 55 were wounded. Islamic Jihad said a Gaza commander, Taiseer al-Jabari, was among those killed.
The Israeli military said it was targeting Islamic Jihad in an operation named “Breaking Dawn”. It also announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and limits placed on other activities in communities within 50 miles of the border.
Israel had closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it braced for a revenge attack after the arrest of the Islamic Jihad leader in the occupied West Bank on Monday. A teenage member of the group was killed in a gun battle between the Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.
Israel and Hamas fought four wars and several smaller skirmishes in the 15 years since the militant group seized power in the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces.
The most recent war was in May 2021, and tensions again soared earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site.
Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, speaking to the al-Mayadeen TV network from Iran, said “we are starting the fight, and the fighters of the Palestinian resistance have to stand together to confront this aggression”. He said there would be “no red lines” in the confrontation and blamed the violence on Israel.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said “the Israeli enemy, who started the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and bear full responsibility for it”.
Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but largely shares its ideology. Both groups are opposed to Israel’s existence and have carried out scores of deadly attacks over the years, including the firing of rockets into southern Israel. It is unclear how much control Hamas has over Islamic Jihad, and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza.
Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz visited communities near Gaza earlier on Friday, saying authorities were preparing “actions that will remove the threat from this region”, without elaborating.
“We will operate with internal resilience and external strength in order to restore routine life in Israel’s south,” he said. “We do not seek conflict, yet we will not hesitate to defend our citizens, if required.”