GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Israel unleashed a wave of airstrikes in Gaza on Friday, killing at least seven people, including a senior militant, and wounding 40 others, according to Palestinian officials. Israel said it was targeting the Islamic Jihad militant group amid days of heightened tensions following the arrest of a high-ranking militant in the occupied West Bank earlier this week.
The strikes risk sparking a new war in the territory, which is ruled by the Islamic militant group Hamas and is home to around 2 million Palestinians. The killing of a high-ranking militant would likely be met with rocket fire from Gaza, bringing the region one step closer to all-out war.
An explosion could be heard in Gaza City, where smoke billowed 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 those killed.
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The Israeli army said it was targeting Islamic Jihad in an operation codenamed “Breaking Dawn”. He also announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and limits imposed on other activities in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the border.
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Israel had closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it prepared for a revenge attack following the arrest of the leader of Islamic Jihad in the occupied West Bank on Monday. A teenage member of the group was killed in a shootout 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 seized power in the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces. The most recent war was in May 2021, and tensions soared again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in West Bank and tensions at a holy site in Jerusalem.
Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, speaking to al-Mayadeen TV from Iran, said: “We are starting the fight, and the Palestinian resistance fighters must unite to confront to this aggression. He said there would be “no red lines” in the confrontation and blamed the violence on Israel.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said “the Israeli enemy, which triggered 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 oppose Israel’s existence and have carried out dozens of deadly attacks over the years, including rocket fire into southern Israel. Hamas’ degree of control over Islamic Jihad is unclear, and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza.
On Friday, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz visited communities near Gaza, saying authorities were preparing “actions that will eliminate the threat from that region,” without giving further details.
“We will operate with internal resilience and external strength to restore daily life in southern Israel,” he said. “We do not seek conflict, but we will not hesitate to defend our citizens, if necessary.
Earlier Friday, a few hundred Israelis demonstrated near the Gaza Strip on Friday demanding the return of a captive and the remains of two Israeli soldiers held by Hamas.
The protesters were led by the family of Hadar Goldin, who, along with Oron Shaul, was killed in the 2014 Gaza war. Hamas still holds their remains, along with two Israeli civilians who strayed into 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 through two police checkpoints on a road near the heavily guarded Gaza border before stopping at a third.
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They held a large sign demanding the return of the soldiers’ remains as well as Avraham Mengistu, an Ethiopian-born Israeli in his late 20s or early 30s. Mengistu’s family took part in the demonstration.
In June, Hamas released a rare video showing another captive, Hisham al-Sayid, an Arab citizen of Israel, in a hospital bed wearing an oxygen mask and an intravenous drip. He said his health had recently deteriorated. Journalists covering the protest heard no mention of al-Sayid.
Israel and Egypt maintained a strict blockade on the territory throughout this period. Israel says the closure is necessary to prevent Hamas from building up 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 progress towards lifting the blockade until the remnants of soldiers and captive civilians are freed. Israel and Hamas have held numerous rounds of Egyptian-mediated talks on a possible swap.
Associated Press reporter Ariel Schalit of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, Israel, and Joseph Krauss in Ottawa, Ontario, contributed to this report.
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