The fiercest conflagration in more than a year between Israel and Gaza militants dragged into a second day on Saturday, with airstrikes that destroyed residential buildings and killed five others, officials said. Palestinian health.
The Israeli army said it struck two Gaza residences belonging to members of the Islamic Jihad militant group which it described as arms stores. Military officials said advance warnings were given and buildings were evacuated ahead of the strikes.
Islamic Jihad and other smaller Palestinian militant groups in Gaza fired rockets at Israeli towns near the territory and more distant towns in central Israel, including Tel Aviv, sending Israeli bathers rushing for to shelter.
The renewed tensions have highlighted the challenge of preventing outbreaks in Israel and the occupied territories when Israeli and Palestinian leaders are divided and politically weak, international attention is elsewhere and there is little hope to end the 15-year blockade of the Gaza Strip by Israel and Egypt.
“There is no end in sight for this cycle, and no player seems willing to build a more stable alternative,” said Professor Nathan J. Brown, a Middle East expert at George Washington University.
The round of fighting, which began with Israeli airstrikes on Friday, has mainly pitted Israel against Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in Gaza. Hamas, the dominant militia in Gaza, has so far steered clear of any direct involvement, raising hopes that the conflict will not escalate into a larger war.
Yet no ceasefire seemed imminent, despite initial mediation efforts by foreign diplomats and the United Nations.
The five Palestinians killed on Saturday brought the two-day death toll to 15, according to health officials in Gaza. One of those killed Friday was a 5-year-old girl.
At least two Israeli soldiers and a civilian were injured, according to Israeli officials and news reports. But the majority of Palestinian rockets fell on open areas or were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system, according to the military.
Gaza’s only power plant has halted operations due to a freeze on fuel deliveries from Israel, further reducing power to large parts of the territory. A senior Israeli military official, speaking to reporters Saturday on condition of anonymity to comply with army rules, said Israel was in contact with Egypt on how to deliver more fuel to Gaza under rocket fire.
When Israel launched the airstrikes on Friday, it said it was acting preemptively to prevent an imminent Islamic Jihad attack in Gaza. Earlier in the week, Israel arrested a senior figure of the group in the West Bank, leading to threats of reprisals. Israel said its airstrikes were aimed at preventing Islamic Jihad from following up on those threats.
An airstrike on Friday killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza and the group retaliated with barrages of rockets and mortars that sent thousands of Israelis into bomb shelters on Friday night.
Since an 11-day war in May last year, Israel has persuaded Gaza militias to avoid violence by offering 14,000 work permits to Palestinian workers in the territory – the highest number since Hamas took control of the territory in 2007.
About two million people live in Gaza, and most receive no direct benefit from the new permits. But the permits nonetheless provide a crucial financial lifeline to thousands of families in the enclave, where nearly one in two residents are unemployed and only one in 10 has direct access to drinking water, according to the UNICEF.
Fearful of losing that concession, especially as it is still rebuilding military infrastructure damaged in the last war, Hamas has avoided a major year-round escalation in Gaza while encouraging unrest and violence in Israel and the West Bank.
But Islamic Jihad, which unlike Hamas does not rule Gaza, is less motivated by small economic concessions.
This is at least the sixth wave of violence in Gaza since Hamas took control in 2007, prompting Israel and Egypt to begin their blockade. Israel is not ready to end the blockade as long as Hamas is in power, and as long as Hamas does not recognize Israel and refuses to end its armed activities.
In the absence of a formal peace process to end the conflict, repeated cycles of violence in Gaza, as well as intermittent outbursts of clandestine diplomacy, are seen as alternative means of renegotiating the terms of the blockade of Gaza.
“In the absence of something more lasting, both sides resort to violence not to defeat the other side – much less eliminate them – but simply to adjust the conditions, and also to play in front of the national public” said Mr. Brown, the Middle East expert.
The last two days of conflict in Gaza can be linked to a spike in violence in Israel and the West Bank several months ago. The increase in Palestinian attacks on civilians in Israel in April and May led to an increase in Israeli raids in the West Bank, particularly in areas from which Israeli officials said the attackers and their accomplices came from.
The Israeli campaign has resulted in near-night arrests across the West Bank in recent months, culminating in the arrest this week of Bassem Saadi, a senior Islamic Jihad operative.
The new round of violence has also served as a reminder of Iran’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Tehran’s nuclear program is seen by Israel as the greatest threat, Iran also wields regional influence by providing financial and logistical aid to proxy militants across the Middle East, such as Hezbollah, in Lebanon, and Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Gaza.
Israel’s opening strikes in Gaza came during a visit by Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala to Tehran to meet with the group’s Iranian bosses – a factor that may have contributed to the denial of the group to reverse its recent threats.
“Because of their total dependence on the Iranians, they have to do what the Iranians tell them to do,” said Kobi Michael, a national security expert at the Institute for National Security Studies. Tel Aviv University.
The crisis was also the first major test for Yair Lapid, Israel’s caretaker prime minister who took office last month after his predecessor’s government collapsed.
The military operation is a risky gamble for Mr Lapid, a centrist often ridiculed for his lack of security experience by his main rival, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, who now leads the opposition .
While this gives Mr. Lapid the chance to prove his security credentials to the Israeli electorate, it also leaves him open to accusations that he is endangering the lives of Israelis and Palestinians.
In Gaza, mourners were already counting the costs of the two days of fighting.
Relatives of Alaa Qadoum, the 5-year-old girl killed in an airstrike on Friday, wrapped her body in a white shroud and Palestinian flags on Friday. A bright pink bow tied most of her hair back.
“Alaa was a fun little girl who didn’t hurt anyone,” her grandfather, Riad Qadoum, 56, said in an interview. “She wasn’t firing rockets and wasn’t fighting anyone,” Qadoum said.
The senior Israeli military official who briefed reporters on Saturday said he was aware of reports of his death and said any civilian deaths would be investigated. But Israel has in the past blamed militants for civilian deaths, saying they often station their rocket launchers and bases near civilian homes and infrastructure.
At a separate briefing for journalists at a military base near the Gaza border in late July, senior Israeli military officials, speaking on condition of anonymity in accordance with army rules, presented maps showing the routes of what they said were parts of a network of militant tunnels, including sections running under roads around a major Gaza university.
The length and scale of the fighting will depend in part on Hamas’ involvement.
Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, said on Friday that the group was “open to all directions”.
But on Saturday, an Israeli army spokesman, Ran Kochav, told Israel Public Radio that the fighting would last at least a week.
Tensions in Jerusalem could escalate on Sunday as Jews mark Tisha B’Av, which commemorates the destruction of two ancient Jewish temples, on a site now sacred to Jews and Muslims. A large number of Jewish worshipers are expected to visit this site, known as the Aqsa Mosque or Temple Mount complex.
Such visits often cause unrest that has historically led to more rocket fire from Gaza.
Raja Abdulrahim, Carol Sutherland and Fady Hanona contributed reporting.