There has been a third day of bloodshed, mourning and intense fighting as the Israeli air force targeted leaders of Islamic Jihad in their homes while Palestinians responded with rocket barrages.
Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip killed two militant commanders on Thursday, while a 70-year-old man was killed by Palestinian rocket fire in the first fatality inside Israel amid the current wave of fighting. The continuing bloodshed, which has left 28 Palestinians dead, came despite Egyptian efforts to broker a ceasefire.
It has been the worst bout of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza in months, with at least 10 civilians — mostly women and children — among the dead. The conflagration, now on its third day, comes at a time of soaring tensions and spiking violence over the past year in the occupied West Bank.
Palestinian militants launched unrelenting rocket barrages into Israel throughout the day. One rocket struck an apartment block in the central Israeli city of Rehovot, killing a 70-year-old man, the MADA rescue service said. It said four others were moderately wounded.
Earlier Thursday, the Israeli military pressed ahead with its strikes against the Islamic Jihad militant group and said a senior commander in charge of the group’s rocket launching force, Ali Ghali, was killed when his apartment was hit.
Later in the day, Israel said it killed another Islamic Jihad commander who was meant to replace Ghali in southern Gaza. Islamic Jihad confirmed the man, Ahmed Abu Daqqa, was one of its commanders.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said a total of 28 people have been killed since the fighting erupted. Among the dead were at least nine Islamic Jihad militants, 10 civilians and nine others, including four whom Israel says were killed in failed rocket launches, whose affiliation remained uncertain.
Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told Israeli Army Radio that two other militants were also killed in the early morning strike, although no group immediately claimed them as members, and that the rest of the building remained intact.
“The apartment was targeted in a very precise way,” Hagari said. “I hope this leads to a reduction, a blow and a disruption of the Islamic Jihad rocket abilities.”
The strikes targeted the top floor of a building in a residential, Qatari-built complex in the southern Gaza Strip. The pre-dawn airstrike in the city of Khan Younis caused damage to three surrounding buildings. The complex, known as Hamad City, consists of several tall buildings and thousands of housing units. The strike created panic among residents, with falling debris and shattered glass littering the streets.
“My children started crying. I did not see anything because of the dust, broken glasses, and debris,” said Abdullah Hemaid, who lives across from the targeted building.
Islamic Jihad said Ghali was a commander in charge of its rocket squad and a member of its armed group’s decision-making body. The group has said it will only ceasefire if Israel agrees to halt targeted killings of its fighters.
The current round of fighting erupted overnight Tuesday when Israel killed three senior Islamic Jihad commanders in near-simultaneous airstrikes.
On Wednesday, a state-run Egyptian TV station announced that Egypt, a frequent mediator between the sides, had brokered a ceasefire. But with the violence continuing late Thursday, there was still no breakthrough.
The Israeli military says that in its strikes on some 150 targets, it has zeroed in on militants with what it says are precision strikes. But children, among them a 4-year-old, were also killed.
Hagari, the military spokesman, told Army Radio that a quarter of the rockets launched have fallen in Gaza, killing at least four, including a 10-year-old girl, two 16-year-olds and a 51-year-old man. That claim could not immediately be independently confirmed.
Ceasefire talks in Cairo
Efforts to mediate a ceasefire were still underway Thursday with top Islamic Jihad political bureau member Mohamad al-Hindi arriving in Cairo to discuss details. A delegation of Egyptian mediators also was travelling to Israel, according to Israeli press reports.
Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that “despite our strenuous efforts, these efforts still have not yielded the desired fruits and results.”
Israeli officials declined to comment.
The initial Israeli airstrikes set off a burst of rocket fire on Wednesday that triggered air-raid sirens throughout southern and central Israel.
The military said more than 500 rockets have been fired toward Israel. It said most were intercepted by Israel’s missile defence system or fell in open areas.
Damage was reported when rockets slammed into buildings that were empty because residents had fled the area. Three buildings in the southern town of Sderot were struck Thursday, officials said, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.
Israel says the airstrikes are a response to a barrage of rocket fire launched last week by Islamic Jihad in response to the death of one of its West Bank members from a hunger strike while in Israeli custody.
Israel has come under international criticism for the high civilian toll. In past conflicts, rights groups have accused Israel of committing war crimes due to the high number of civilian deaths. Israel says it does its utmost to avoid civilian casualties and holds militant groups responsible because they operate in heavily populated residential areas. It also says militants fire rockets indiscriminately at Israeli communities.
In signs that both sides were trying to show restraint, Israel has avoided attacks on the ruling Hamas militant group, targeting only the smaller and more militant Islamic Jihad. Hamas, which has much more to lose than Islamic Jihad, also has remained on the sidelines.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and numerous smaller engagements since the Islamic militant group took control of Gaza in 2007.
The army said that schools would remain closed and restrictions on large gatherings would remain in place in southern Israel until at least Friday. Residents were instructed to stay near bomb shelters.
Meanwhile, in the occupied West Bank, where Israeli-Palestinian violence has surged over the past year, the Palestinian Health Ministry said a 30-year-old man died after he was shot by Israeli troops in a raid on Wednesday, and that a 66-year-old Palestinian man died after he was shot during a gun battle between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants in a refugee camp near the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem on Thursday.
The Israeli army said it has arrested 25 suspected Islamic Jihad members in West Bank raids in recent days.