Militants fired more than 200 rockets at Israel in retaliation overnight, according to the Israeli military, a barrage that continued Saturday afternoon.
Emergency response officials reported no casualties from the rocket fire, while thousands of residents of southern and central Israel took shelter in safe rooms or communal anti-aircraft bunkers. Two civilians were reportedly slightly injured as they ran for cover.
The Israel Defense Forces said their Iron Dome air defense network intercepted about 95 percent of the rockets. No major property damage was reported. Officials said 36 of the launches failed in Gaza.
The IDF continued to carry out airstrikes in Gaza, targeting what it said were rocket manufacturing, storage and launching sites. The attacks killed one person in the Khanyunis area early Saturday, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, the first fatality since the initial IDF strikes left 10 dead, including a five-year-old girl.
Military officials said they launched a preemptive strike after detecting signs that the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) was setting up equipment for an “imminent” attack on Israeli civilians in communities near Gaza. Tensions have been rising between the sides since Israel arrested a PIJ leader in the West Bank on Tuesday.
Friday’s initial strike killed Taysir al-Jabari, a top Islamic Jihad leader, when a missile destroyed part of the Palestine Tower building. Israel has also stepped up arrests of suspected PIJ members outside Gaza. The IDF said forces arrested 20 men after raids near Hebron, Ramallah and other West Bank locations.
There were no signs that Hamas, the rival militant group that rules Gaza, was participating in the attacks on Israel, although the group issued statements condemning Israel’s airstrikes.
Ismail Haniyeh, the political head of Hamas, said Israel bears full responsibility for the ongoing fighting and, in a call to Egyptian mediators, demanded an immediate halt to IDF strikes.
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Hamas, which maintains its own stockpile of weapons and has fought several wars with Israel, has not always joined the PIJ fights. The group halted several days of exchanges between the PIJ and Israel in 2019 after Israel killed another senior PIJ commander. His actions now could be key in determining whether the current fighting escalates even further. Diplomats from the United Nations and Egypt said they were working to calm tensions before this happened. A delegation from Cairo was due to arrive in Gaza on Saturday, according to media reports.
“The most important thing is whether Hamas is going to intervene or not,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, a former head of intelligence research for the Israeli army. “Right now, I think they’re sitting on the question. They certainly offer moral support to the Islamic Jihad, but they do not imply that they are involved. The situation is very fragile.
Israeli officials hope the conditions are in place for a relatively quick end to the violence. In the year since Israel and Hamas fought an 11-day war that killed more than 250 Palestinians and 13 people inside Israel, 14,000 Gazans have been granted permits work in Israel, a vital source of money inside the enclave that has dried up since Israel. sealed the borders amid tensions earlier this week. Reconstruction, mainly financed by external donors, had started to accelerate in recent months.
Militarily, analysts say Hamas hasn’t had time to fully replenish the supply of rockets it fired in the last war, which could deter engaging in another major battle now. But opinions within the organization are known to be divided, with some officials outside the enclave more keen on an escalation.
For civilians, the situation inside Gaza is rapidly deteriorating. Officials said they would shut off the already limited electricity supply from midday Saturday due to a lack of fuel to run generators. There were queues to buy bread even as occasional IDF strikes landed elsewhere in the enclave of 2 million people.
Mahmoud Jaber, 23, had been queuing outside a bakery in Gaza City for half an hour and still had an hour to wait until he could shop for the 13 people, including seven children, who live in his house.
“We don’t know how long the war will last,” he said.
Balousha reported from Gaza.