Israel pounds Gaza with air strikes, arrests militant suspects in West Bank
Israel pounded Gaza with air strikes on Saturday, prompting Palestinian retaliatory rocket fire as Israeli forces broadened their offensive in the West Bank, arresting 20 people in early morning raids. Israel’s latest “pre-emptive counter-terror operation” has sparked fears of escalated violence in the Palestinian Territories.
Israel unleashed a new wave of air strikes on Gaza following Friday’s assault, killing 24 people, including a five-year-old girl, with more than 203 injured, according to Palestinian health authorities. Israel’s army estimated that its operation has killed 15 militants.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the country was forced to launch a “pre-emptive counter-terror operation against an immediate threat” posed by the Islamic Jihad group, following days of tensions along the Gaza border.
The Israeli military warned Saturday that it was “preparing for the operation to last a week”, while the sole power station in Gaza ground to a halt due to a lack of fuel after Israel closed border crossings.
Israel and Islamic Jihad have both confirmed the killing of a top leader in the militant group, Taysir al-Jabari, in a Friday strike on a building in the west of Gaza City.
Islamic Jihad said the initial Israeli bombardment amounted to a “declaration of war”, before it unleashed a flurry of more than 100 rockets towards Israel.
Meanwhile in the West Bank, Israel announced the arrest of 20 people, including 19 Islamic Jihad members, in early morning raids.
An army statement said soldiers and agents from the Shin Bet internal security agency had operated at several West Bank locations, “in order to apprehend Islamic Jihad terrorist operatives”.
Out of 20 people detained in the latest sweep, “19 of them are Islamic Jihad”, the army said.
The latest deadly escalation in Gaza was sparked by Israel’s arrest earlier this week in the West Bank of Bassem al-Saadi, a key Islamic Jihad member Israel blamed for orchestrating a spate of attacks.
Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed Islamist group, has a strong presence in Gaza and in the West Bank, a Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.
Egypt seeks to mediate
Israel insisted that Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza were planning to attack southern Israel in retaliation for Saadi’s arrest, forcing it to launch what the army called “pre-emptive” strikes.
The rocket fire and Israeli strikes continued overnight, risking a repeat of an 11-day conflict in May 2021 that devastated Gaza and forced countless Israelis to rush to bomb shelters.
“Israel isn’t interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but will not shy away from one either,” Lapid said in a nationally televised address.
Air raid sirens sounded overnight across several spots in southern and central Israel, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
Officials in border areas urged people to stay close to shelters, which were also being opened in the commercial capital of Tel Aviv.
The army had initially confirmed at least 70 rocket launches from Gaza, saying 11 had fallen inside the strip, with dozens intercepted by the Iron Dome air defence system, and that others had landed in open areas.
Air raid warnings and Israeli strikes had at least temporarily abated by 4.30am local time.
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.
‘Our generation has lost its future’
Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, has fought four wars with Israel since seizing control of the strip in 2007, including the conflict last May. Islamic Jihad is a separate group that is aligned with Hamas, but also acts independently.
A flare-up with Islamic Jihad came in 2019, following Israel’s killing of Baha Abu al-Ata, Jabari’s predecessor.
Hamas’s moves amid the current violence could prove crucial in determining the violence’s severity, with the group facing pressure from some to maintain calm in order to improve economic conditions in the territory.
Gaza City resident Abdullah al-Arayshi said the situation was “very tense”.
“The country is ravaged. We’ve had enough of wars. Our generation has lost its future,” he told AFP.
Hamas said Israel has “committed a new crime for which it must pay the price”.
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are considered terrorist organisations by much of the West.
Five-year-old girl among victims
Flames poured out of a building in Gaza City following the first round of strikes, while wounded Palestinians were evacuated by medics.
Gaza’s health ministry reported that “a five-year-old girl, targeted by the Israeli occupation” was among those killed.
Five-year-old 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 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, and the military said on Thursday it was reinforcing its troops.
UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland said he was “deeply concerned”, warning that the escalation was “very dangerous”.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)
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