Israel, Palestinian militants trade fire in major Gaza escalation

Palestinian firefighters battle a blaze sparked by an Israeli air strike on 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.

Early on Saturday Israel broadened its operation against Islamic Jihad, a group that is aligned with Hamas but often acts independently.

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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.

The rocket fire and Israeli strikes were continuing early Saturday, 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,” Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a nationally televised address on Friday.

Officials in border areas urged people to stay close to shelters, which have also been opened in the commercial capital of Tel Aviv.

Hamas has fought four wars with Israel since seizing control of Gaza in 2007, including the conflict last May.

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 its severity, with the group facing pressure from some to maintain calm in order to improve economic conditions in the territory.

“The country is ravaged. We’ve had enough of wars. Our generation has lost its future,” he told AFP.

– Five-year-old girl –

On Friday, the health ministry reported “a five-year-old girl, targeted by the Israeli occupation” was among those killed.

Hundreds of mourners gathered in Gaza City for the funerals of Jabari and others killed in the air strikes.

Israeli tanks were lined up along the border and the military said Thursday it was reinforcing its troops.

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.

Islamic Jihad did not launch rockets after Saadi’s arrest, but Israel has insisted through the week that the group was committed to seeking revenge.

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