Israel pounded Gaza with airstrikes on Friday, killing more than 15 people, including a senior militant, and unleashing a barrage of retaliatory rocket fire from the territory.
Israel said it launched a preemptive strike against Islamic Jihad, killing a senior commander of the Palestinian militant group it blames for a string of recent attacks inside Israel.
Islamic Jihad said the Israeli bombardment amounted to a “declaration of war”, hours before unleashing what it called an “initial response” of more than 100 rockets towards Israel.
There were no immediate reports of casualties inside Israel, as officials in the country’s commercial capital, Tel Aviv, said they were opening the city’s bomb shelters.
But in Gaza, a child was among the victims, according to the territory’s health ministry, which is run by the Islamist movement Hamas.
Hamas has fought four wars with Israel since it took control of Gaza in 2007, most recently in May last year. Islamic Jihad is a separate group, but aligned with Hamas.
Israeli strikes continued late Friday, targeting what the army described as militant targets throughout the territory it has blocked since the Hamas takeover.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the strikes were a “precise anti-terrorist operation against an immediate threat”.
– Five-year-old girl –
Flames erupted from a building in Gaza City after the first round of strikes, while injured Palestinians were evacuated by medics.
Gaza’s health ministry reported that “a five-year-old girl, targeted by the Israeli occupation” was among nine people killed. Another 55 Palestinians were injured, the ministry said.
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 his funeral.
Islamic Jihad said several members of its armed wing were among the casualties, including “great fighter Taysir al-Jabari ‘Abu Mahmoud’, the commander of the Al-Quds Brigade in the northern region of the Gaza Strip”.
Hundreds of mourners gathered in Gaza City for the funeral of Jabari and others killed in the airstrikes.
Israeli army spokesman Richard Hecht said “we assume around 15 people were killed in action” in Gaza, referring to Palestinian fighters.
Israeli tanks were lined up along the border and the army said on Thursday it was reinforcing its troops.
US Ambassador Tom Nides said Washington “firmly believes that Israel has the right to protect itself.”
“We are engaging with different parties and urging all parties for calm,” he wrote on Twitter.
UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland said he was “deeply concerned”, warning that the escalation was “very dangerous”.
– ‘Pay the price’ –
The strikes come four days after Israel closed its two border crossings with Gaza and restricted the movement of Israeli civilians living near the border, citing security concerns.
These measures follow the arrest in the occupied West Bank of two senior leaders of the Islamic Jihad, which has a strong presence in Gaza. The militant group did not launch any attacks on Israeli territory after the arrests.
Gaza City resident Abdullah al-Arayshi said the situation was “very tense”. “The country is devastated. We are tired of wars. Our generation has lost its future,” he told AFP.
Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, said Israel had “committed a new crime for which it must pay the price”.
“The resistance in all its arms and military factions is united in this struggle and will speak loudly…All fronts must open fire on the enemy,” he said in a statement.
Lapid, who was meeting with his security chiefs throughout the day, said: “Anyone trying to harm Israel should know – we will find you.”
Islamic Jihad is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States.
Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas’ office said Israeli military action amounted to a “dangerous escalation” and called on the international community to curb Israeli “aggression”.
The Israeli army has banned large gatherings in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the Gaza border until Saturday evening.
The measure follows four days of road closures and other restrictions in the border area.
Palestinians, including patients and Israeli work permit holders, have been prevented from leaving the Gaza Strip since Tuesday, while the crossing for goods has also been closed.
Gaza’s only power plant is at risk of imminent blackout due to a lack of fuel supply via Israel, its director warned on Thursday.
The closure of the border area this week follows a raid by security forces in the Jenin district in the northern West Bank.
Israeli forces arrested Bassem al-Saadi and another senior Islamic Jihad operative. A 17-year-old member of the group was shot dead by Israeli forces during the raid.
(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from a syndicated feed.)
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