Israel and Gaza militants exchange fire after deadly strikes

Simon Coveney condemns attacks and calls for de-escalation of tension in and around Gaza

Israeli jets have pounded militant targets in Gaza and rocket barrages into southern Israel persisted, raising fears of an escalation after a wave of Israeli air strikes on the coastal enclave killed at least 15 people, including a senior militant and a five-year-old girl.

The fighting that began on Friday with Israel’s dramatic targeted killing of a senior Commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group continued throughout the night, drawing the sides closer to an all-out war.

But the territory’s Hamas rulers appeared to stay on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat contained, for now.

Minister of Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said he was “deeply concerned” about the increasing violence in the area.

“I am deeply concerned about the escalation in and around Gaza and the impact of Israeli strikes on civilians,” Mr Coveney said in a statement on Sunday.

“I also condemn the indiscriminate firing of rockets from Gaza affecting civilians.

“Ireland calls for de-escalation [of violence] and the protection of civilians, which is an obligation under international humanitarian law.

“I am particularly concerned about the impact on children,” the minister said.

“Ireland calls for everybody to act with restraint and reduce tensions.”

Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller battles over the last 15 years at a staggering cost to the territory’s two million Palestinian residents.

Shortly before noon on Saturday, Israeli warplanes stepped up air strikes in Gaza.

After warning residents in phone calls, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the house of an Islamic Jihad member, flattening the west Gaza City two-storey structure and badly damaging surrounding homes.

Women and children rushed out of the area.

“Warned us? They warned us with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door.

She said 15 people lived in the targeted home.

Another air strike hit an Islamic jihad site nearby.

The latest round of Israel-Gaza violence was sparked by the arrest this week of a senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, part of a month-long Israeli military operation in the territory.

Citing a security threat, Israel then sealed roads around the Gaza Strip and on Friday killed the militant leader in a targeted strike.

A blast was heard in Gaza City, where smoke poured from the seventh floor of a tall building.

Video released by Israel’s military showed the strikes blowing up three guard towers with suspected militants in them.

In a nationally televised speech on Friday, Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid said his country started the attacks based on “concrete threats”.

“This government has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempted attacks — of any kind — from Gaza towards Israeli territory,” Mr Lapid said.

“Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who are trying to harm its civilians.”

“Israel isn’t interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but will not shy away from one either,” he said.

The violence poses an early test for Mr Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister before elections in November, when he hopes to keep the position.

Mr Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has experience in diplomacy having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has thin security credentials.

A conflict with Gaza could burnish his standing and give him a boost as he faces off against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country during three of its four wars with Hamas.

Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle barely a year after the last war caused widespread devastation.

There has been almost no reconstruction since then, and the isolated coastal territory is mired in poverty, with unemployment hovering around 50 per cent.

The Palestinian health ministry said a five-year-old girl and two women were among 15 killed in Gaza, along with more than 80 wounded.

It did not differentiate between civilians and militants.

The Israeli military said early estimates were that around 15 fighters were killed.

Dozens were wounded.

Islamic Jihad said Taiseer al-Jabari, its Commander for northern Gaza, was among the dead.

He had succeeded another militant killed in an air strike in 2019.

An Israeli military spokesman said the strikes were in response to an “imminent threat” from two militant squads armed with anti-tank missiles.

The spokesman said al-Jabari was deliberately targeted and had been responsible for “multiple attacks” on Israel.

Hundreds marched in a funeral procession for him and others who were killed, with many mourners waving Palestinian and Islamic Jihad flags and calling for revenge.

Israeli media showed the skies above southern and central Israel lighting up with rockets and interceptors from Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system.

It was not immediately clear how many rockets were started, and there was no immediate word on any casualties on the Israeli side.

Overnight, Israel struck rocket launchers, rocket building sites and Islamic Jihad positions.

The UN special envoy to the region Tor Wennesland said: “The launching of rockets must cease immediately, and I call on all sides to avoid further escalation.”

In the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military said it had apprehended 19 Islamic Jihad militants in overnight arrest raids.

Palestinian militants fired at least 160 rockets over the border, the military said, some deep into Israel toward the commercial hub Tel Aviv. Most of the missiles were intercepted and a few people were lightly injured when running to shelters.

Following the initial Israeli strikes, a few hundred people gathered outside the morgue at Gaza City’s main Shifa hospital.

Some went in to identify loved ones and emerged later in tears.

“May God take revenge against spies,” shouted one, referring to Palestinian informants who co-operate with Israel.

Defence minister Benny Gantz approved an order to call up 25,000 reserve soldiers if needed while the military announced a “special situation” on the home front, with schools closed and limits placed on activities in communities within 80km (50 miles) of the border.

Israel closed roads around Gaza earlier this week and sent reinforcements to the border as it braced for a revenge attack after Monday’s arrest of Bassam al-Saadi, an Islamic Jihad leader, in a military raid in the occupied West Bank.

A teenage member of the group was killed in a gun battle between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants.

Egypt, the United Nations and Qatar had begun mediating an end to the violence, according to a Palestinian official with knowledge of the efforts, “but no breakthrough yet”, the official said.

A western-backed Palestinian Authority official also condemned Israel’s attacks.

“We call on the international community to intervene and provide protection for our people,” civil affairs Minister Hussein al-Sheikh said on Twitter.

Its most recent war with Israel was in May 2021, when 11 days of fierce fighting between Israel and militants left at least 250 people in Gaza and 13 in Israel dead.

Tensions soared again earlier this year following a wave of attacks inside Israel, near-daily military operations in the West Bank and tensions at a flashpoint Jerusalem holy site.

Israel withdrew troops and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

Hamas seized power in the coastal strip from rival Palestinian forces in 2007.

Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhalah, speaking to the Al-Mayadeen TV network from Iran, said “fighters of the Palestinian resistance have to stand together to confront this aggression”.

He said there would be “no red lines” and blamed the violence on Israel.

Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said “the Israeli enemy, which started the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and bear full responsibility for it”.

Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad is smaller than Hamas but largely shares its ideology.

Both groups oppose Israel’s existence and have carried out scores of deadly attacks over the years, including the firing of rockets into Israel.

It is unclear how much control Hamas has over Islamic Jihad, and Israel holds Hamas responsible for all attacks emanating from Gaza.

Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the territory since the Hamas takeover.

Israel says the closure is needed to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities.

Critics say the policy amounts to collective punishment.