Israel said on Sunday it killed a top Islamic Jihad commander in a crowded Gaza refugee camp, the second such targeted attack since launching its high-risk military offensive against the militant group just before the weekend.
The Iran-backed militant group fired hundreds of rockets into Israel in response, raising the risk that the cross-border fighting could turn into a full-blown war.
Gaza’s ruling Hamas group, which fought an 11-day war with Israel in May 2021, appears to be on the sidelines for now, perhaps because it fears Israeli retaliation and the rollback of economic deals with Israel. Israel, including Israeli work permits for thousands of Gaza residents, which reinforces its control.
Islamic Jihad commander Khaled Mansour was killed Saturday night in an airstrike on a residential building in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza.
Two other militants and five civilians were also killed in the attack, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 31 since the start of the Israeli offensive on Friday. Among the dead were six children and four women. The Palestinian Health Ministry said more than 250 people had been injured since Friday.
Israel says some of the deaths were caused by errant rocket fire, including an incident in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza in which six Palestinians were killed on Saturday. On Sunday, a projectile hit a house in the same neighborhood of Jebaliya, killing two men. The Palestinians held Israel responsible, while Israel said it was investigating whether the area had been hit by an errant rocket.
Mansour, the Islamic Jihad commander for southern Gaza, was in the apartment of a member of the group when the missile struck, flattening the three-story building and severely damaging nearby homes.
“Suddenly, without warning, the house next to us was bombed and everything went black and dusty with smoke in the blink of an eye,” said Wissam Jouda, who lives next to the targeted building.
Ahmed al-Qaissi, another neighbor, said his wife and son were among the injured, injured by shrapnel. To make room for rescue workers, al-Qaissi agreed to have part of his house demolished.
As Mansour’s funeral began in the Gaza Strip on Sunday afternoon, the Israeli military said it was hitting “suspected Islamic Jihad rocket launching posts”. Smoke could be seen from the strikes as the blasts from their explosions rocked Gaza. Israeli airstrikes and rocket fire followed for hours as sirens wailed in central Israel.
Israel’s Defense Ministry said mortars fired from Gaza hit the Erez border crossing into Israel, used by thousands of Gazans every day. The mortars damaged the roof and shrapnel hit the hall entrance, the ministry said. The crossing point was closed amid the fighting.
The Rafah strike was the deadliest to date in the ongoing series of fighting, which was sparked by Israel on Friday with the targeted killing of the Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza.
Israel said it took action against the militant group due to concrete threats of an imminent attack, but did not provide details. Acting Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is an experienced diplomat but has no experience overseeing a war, launched the offensive less than three months before a general election in which he is campaigning to keep his job.
In a statement on Sunday, Lapid said the military would continue to strike targets in Gaza “in a precise and responsible manner to minimize harm to noncombatants.” Lapid said the strike that killed Mansour was “an extraordinary achievement”.
“The operation will continue for as long as necessary,” Lapid said.
Israel estimates that its airstrikes killed around 15 militants.
Islamic Jihad has fewer fighters and supporters than Hamas, and little is known about its arsenal of weapons. Both groups call for the destruction of Israel, but have different priorities, with Hamas constrained by government demands.
The Israeli military said militants in Gaza fired around 580 rockets into Israel. The army said its air defenses intercepted many of them, and two of those shot down were fired towards Jerusalem. Islamic Jihad has fewer fighters and supporters than Hamas.
Air raid sirens sounded in the Jerusalem area for the first time on Sunday since last year’s Israel-Hamas war.
Jerusalem is usually a hot spot during times of cross-border fighting between Israel and Gaza. On Sunday, hundreds of Jews, including inflammatory ultra-nationalist lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir, visited a sensitive holy site in Jerusalem known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. The visit, under heavy police protection, ended without incident, police said.
Such demonstrative visits by Israeli extremists seeking to underscore Israeli claims of sovereignty over disputed Jerusalem have sparked violence in the past. The holy site sits on the fault line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is central to the rival narratives of Palestinians and Israeli Jews.
In Palestinian towns in the West Bank, Israeli security forces said they arrested 19 people suspected of belonging to Islamic Jihad in night raids.
The fighting began with Israel’s killing of a top Islamic Jihad commander on Friday in a wave of strikes that Israel said were aimed at preventing an imminent attack.
On Sunday, Hamas still seemed to stay out of the fight. The group is strongly urged to avoid another war. Last year’s Israel-Hamas war, one of four major conflicts and several small battles in the past 15 years, took a heavy toll on the impoverished territory’s 2.3 million Palestinian residents.
Since the last war, Israel and Hamas have reached tacit agreements based on exchanging calm for work permits and a slight relaxation of the border blockade imposed by Israel and Egypt when Hamas invaded the territory there. at 15. Israel has issued 12,000 work permits to workers in Gaza and plans to grant another 2,000 permits.
Gaza’s only power station shut down at noon on Saturday due to a lack of fuel. Israel has kept its crossings into Gaza closed since Tuesday. With the new disruption, Gazans can only use four hours of electricity a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and worsening the territory’s chronic power crisis amid peak summer heat.
Ben Zion reported from Jerusalem.