Residents of the Gaza Strip were bracing for the possibility of a new round of war on Saturday after two days of “pre-emptive” Israeli airstrikes against a Palestinian militant group.
Israeli warplanes hit several sites in the blockaded territory on Friday, part of a surprise operation named “Breaking Dawn” that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said thwarted alleged planned rocket attacks by Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
After retaliatory fire from the militants, Israel warned on Saturday that its bombing campaign could last a week, in the worst escalation of violence since last May’s 11-day conflict.
Exchanges of fire continued as Israel appeared to broaden the operation on Saturday. On Sunday, health authorities in the Palestinian coastal enclave updated the death toll to 24 people, including the Islamic Jihad commander for north Gaza, Tayseer Jabari, and civilians including six children – among them a five-year-old girl – and a 22-year-old art student. More than 80 more people were injured.
Israel meanwhile said a stray rocket from Islamic Jihad militants had been responsible for the death of multiple children in Jabalia, northern Gaza, on Saturday.
While it sometimes acts independently, the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad is aligned with Hamas, the larger Islamist movement that rules the strip, and both are considered terrorist organisations by most of the international community.
Whether the latest confrontation between Israel and Islamic Jihad will escalate into full-out war largely depends on whether Hamas – still licking its wounds from last year’s war – decides to intervene.
The group has announced its support for Islamic Jihad, and said it would also respond to the strikes. “The resistance, with all its arms and military factions, is united in this campaign and will have the last word,” Hamas officials said in a statement.
Islamic Jihad called the initial Israeli bombardment a “declaration of war”, firing a barrage of at least 100 rockets into southern Israel on Friday night.
There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage, with many rockets intercepted by the Iron Dome aerial defence system, but 13 people were taken to hospital with minor injuries.
Air raid sirens continued to blare in Tel Aviv and towns and cities across Israel’s south on Saturday.
The hostilities have left Gaza’s inhabitants fearful of what could be the fifth full-scale conflict in the strip since Hamas seized control in 2007. Israel and Egypt closed the enclave’s frontiers shortly after, leaving the area’s 2 million residents grappling with unemployment, crumbling medical infrastructure and little electricity and clean water for the last 15 years.
On Saturday, dozens of people lined up in front of bakeries and grocery stores, while the local energy authority, unable to supply the sole power station with fuel, shut down operations at midday.
Hamed al-Hindi, 33, waited to buy bread for his family and elderly parents for more than an hour in downtown Gaza City. “I don’t know how long this escalation will take and how bad it will be,” he said.
“We couldn’t sleep last night, the sounds of explosions didn’t stop. I brought my three children to my room to keep them calm.”
Lamia al-Bakri, who was leaving a supermarket carrying several plastic bags, said: “Everything happened suddenly and without warning.
“My 10-year-old daughter kept asking me, ‘Could we go to Egypt and live there, I don’t want war, I’m afraid. I don’t want any of us get hurt.’
“I don’t know why these kids must suffer for years,” the 41-year-old said.
The heaviest strikes yet hit four residential buildings the IDF said were linked to Islamic Jihad activity on Saturday afternoon. In each case, the Israeli military warned residents beforehand, and no casualties were reported.
Another strike on Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-year-old woman and wounding six others. Other strikes largely hit rural areas, targeting what Israel said were rocket launcher sites and training camps.
Egypt, which often mediates between Israel and armed groups in Gaza, said it had been informed by Israel that Breaking Dawn would be a small-scale assault, but efforts at coordinating a ceasefire have yielded no progress so far.
This weekend’s violence comes after days of tension sparked by the arrest of Bassem al-Saadi, Islamic Jihad’s top commander in the occupied West Bank. The IDF has conducted near-nightly raids across the West Bank since mid-March, in response to a wave of Palestinian terror attacks on Israeli citizens.
While Islamic Jihad did not launch rockets after Saadi’s arrest, Israel has insisted through the week that the group is seeking revenge, and that two units armed with anti-tank missiles posed an imminent threat.
Israel has closed the Erez crossing, used by Palestinians in Gaza to enter Israel, since Tuesday and shut down roads and restricted movement of civilians in Israel’s south as a precaution.
Israeli tanks and armour were lined up along the frontier on Friday, after the military said it was reinforcing its troops, and its defence minister, Benny Gantz, has approved an order to call up 25,000 reservists if needed.
“Israel isn’t interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but will not shy away from one either,” the Israeli prime minister, Yair Lapid, said in a televised address on Friday. “Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who are trying to harm its civilians.”
The Gaza Strip has remained relatively quiet since the war in May last year, which killed 256 people in Gaza and 14 people in Israel.
Israel elected a coalition government a month later that for the first time included members of an independent Arab-Israeli party, which was opposed to escalation with Palestinians. It also increased the number of work permits for Palestinians in Gaza to enter Israel in an attempt to alleviate the strip’s crushing poverty.
The short-lived coalition collapsed in June. Centrist Lapid, the caretaker prime minister, is preparing for elections on 1 November in which he faces pressure from Israel’s right wing to appear tough on terrorism.