Gaza City - Israel hit Gaza with air strikes on Saturday and a Palestinian militant group retaliated with a barrage of rocket fire, in the territory's worst escalation of violence since a war last year.
Israel has said it was forced to launch a "pre-emptive" operation against Islamic Jihad, insisting the group was planning an imminent attack following days of tensions along the Gaza border.
Health authorities in Gaza, a Palestinian enclave controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, said 11 people have been killed by Israel's bombardment, including a five-year-old girl, with more than 80 others injured. Israel's army estimated that its operation has killed 15 militants.
Early on Saturday Israel broadened its operation against Islamic Jihad, a group that is aligned with Hamas but often acts independently. The Israeli army announced the arrest of 19 people it said were members of the group in the occupied West Bank, alongside the arrest of one other person.
Israel and Islamic Jihad have both confirmed the killing of Taysir al-Jabari, a key leader of the militants, in a Friday strike on a building in the west of Gaza city. Islamic Jihad said that the initial Israeli bombardment amounted to a "declaration of war" before it unleashed a barrage of rockets toward Israel.
The rocket fire and Israeli strikes were continuing on Saturday, risking a repeat of an 11-day conflict in May 2021 that devastated Gaza and forced countless Israelis to rush to bomb shelters. Daily life in the enclave has come to a standstill, with streets largely deserted and most shops closed.
Some power lines have been disrupted by the Israeli air strikes, an AFP reporter said. - Escalation, mediation - "Israel isn't interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but will not shy away from one either," Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a nationally televised address on Friday. Air raid sirens sounded across southern Israel on Saturday, but there were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage. The Israeli military said the vast majority of 160 rockets fired from Gaza had either fallen within the Palestinian territory, or been intercepted by the Iron Dome aerial defense system.
Officials in border areas urged people to stay close to shelters, which have also been opened in the coastal city of Tel Aviv. Egypt, a historic broker between Israel and armed groups in Gaza, was seeking to mediate and may host an Islamic Jihad delegation later Saturday, Egyptian officials told AFP in Gaza.
But sources within Islamic Jihad denied a ceasefire was on the cards, with one saying: "there is no talk whatsoever of Egyptian mediation and for the movement, the focus is on the battlefield." The Arab League "condemned in the strongest possible terms the ferocious Israeli aggression against Gaza," while Jordan's foreign ministry "stressed the importance of halting the Israeli aggression". Hamas has fought four wars with Israel since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, including the conflict last May. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are considered terrorist organizations by much of the West. A flare-up with Islamic Jihad came in 2019, following Israel's killing of Baha Abu al-Ata, Jabari's predecessor.
Hamas did not join the fray in that episode. Hamas's moves now could prove crucial, with the group facing pressure from some to restore calm in order to improve economic conditions in Gaza.
Fire balls and plumes of smoke have billowed out of targets hit in Gaza. On Friday, the health ministry reported "a five-year-old girl, targeted by the Israeli occupation" was among those killed.
The girl, Alaa Kaddum, had a pink bow in her hair and a wound on her forehead, as her body was carried by her father at her funeral. Hundreds of mourners gathered in Gaza City on Friday for the funerals of Jabari and others killed in the air strikes. Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht said "we are assuming about 15 killed in action" in Gaza, referring to Palestinian combatants. Israeli tanks were lined up along the border after the military said Thursday it was reinforcing its troops.
The strikes come four days after Israel closed its two border crossings with Gaza and restricted the movement of Israeli civilians living near the frontier, citing security concerns.
The measures followed the arrest in the occupied West Bank of two senior members of Islamic Jihad, including Bassem al-Saadi, who Israel accuses of orchestrating recent attacks. Israel has conducted a near relentless wave of often deadly raids inside the West Bank since mid-March in response to lethal attacks on Israeli citizens.