CITY OF GAZA, Gaza Strip – Israel unleashed a wave of air strikes in Gaza on Friday, killing at least seven people, including a high-level militant, and injuring 40 others, according to Palestinian officials. Israel said it was targeting the Islamic Jihad militant group in days of heightened tensions following the arrest of a high-level militant in the occupied West Bank earlier this week.
The strikes risk triggering yet another war in the territory, which is governed by the Islamic militant group Hamas and which is home to around 2 million Palestinians. The assassination of a high-level militant would likely be thwarted by rocket firing from Gaza, pushing the region closer to all-out war.
An explosion was heard in Gaza City, where smoke emerged from the seventh floor of a tall building on Friday afternoon.
The Palestinian health ministry said seven people were killed, including a 5-year-old girl, and at least 40 were injured. Islamic Jihad said a Gaza commander, Taiseer al-Jabari, was among the victims.
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The Israeli military said it was targeting Islamic Jihad in an operation called “Breaking Dawn”. It also announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and limits to other activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
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Israel closed the roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it prepared for a revenge attack following the arrest of the Islamic Jihad leader in the occupied West Bank on Monday. A teenage member of the group was killed in a fire fight between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several minor skirmishes in the 15 years since the militant group took power in the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces. The most recent was in May 2021 and tensions escalated again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, almost daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions in a holy site in Jerusalem. .
Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, speaking to the Iranian television network al-Mayadeen, said that “we are starting the struggle and Palestinian resistance fighters must stand together to face this aggression”. He said there would be no “red lines” in the confrontation and blamed Israel for the violence.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said that “the Israeli enemy, who initiated the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and take full responsibility”.
Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but largely shares its ideology. Both groups are opposed to the existence of Israel and have carried out dozens of deadly attacks over the years, including rocket firing in southern Israel. It is unclear how much control Hamas has over Islamic Jihad and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks from Gaza.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited communities near Gaza on Friday, saying authorities were preparing “actions that will remove the threat from this region,” without going into further detail.
“We will work with internal resilience and external force in order to restore routine life in southern Israel,” he said. “We do not seek conflict, but we will not hesitate to defend our citizens if necessary.”
On Friday, a couple of hundred Israelis protested near the Gaza Strip on Friday to demand the return of a prisoner and the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas.
The protesters were led by the family of Hadar Goldin, who was killed along with Oron Shaul in the 2014 Gaza war. Hamas still holds their remains, as well as two Israeli civilians who have gone astray in Gaza and are believed to be mentally ill, hoping to exchange them for some of the thousands of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.
Protesters passed two police checkpoints on a heavily guarded road near the Gaza border before stopping at a third.
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They held a large sign calling for the return of the soldiers’ remains as well as Avraham Mengistu, an Israeli of Ethiopian origin between the ages of 20 and 30. Mengistu’s family took part in the protest.
In June, Hamas released a rare video showing another prisoner, Hisham al-Sayid, an Arab citizen of Israel, in a hospital bed with an oxygen mask and an IV. He said his health has recently deteriorated. Journalists who followed the protest did not hear any mention of al-Sayid.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade on the territory all this time. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from bolstering its military capabilities, while critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment of Gaza’s 2 million Palestinian residents.
Israel says there can be no major moves to lift the blockade until the remains of the soldiers and civilian prisoners are released. Israel and Hamas held numerous rounds of Egyptian-mediated talks about a possible trade.
Associated Press reporter Ariel Schalit in Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, Israel and Joseph Krauss in Ottawa, Ontario contributed to this report.
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