Israel and Palestinian militants unleashed salvos of fire for a fifth day on Saturday, with the Islamic Jihad militant group launching dozens more rockets and the Israeli military pounding targets inside the Gaza Strip.
Missile shrapnel from a Palestinian rocket that slammed into an agricultural community in Israel’s southern Negev desert severely wounded two Palestinians from Gaza in their 40s who had been working in Israel. Another 36-year-old man was moderately wounded, Israeli medics said. There were no immediate reports of casualties Saturday from Israeli airstrikes on Gaza, where so far 34 Palestinians have been killed, at least 14 of them civilians, according to Palestinian health officials. Over 147 have been wounded.
In a reminder of the combustible situation in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military raided the Balata refugee camp near the northern city of Nablus, sparking a firefight that killed two Palestinians. In a separate incident near the northern city of Jenin, Israeli police said they shot and killed a suspected Palestinian assailant who ran toward soldiers wielding a knife.
Meanwhile, hopes for an imminent cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were fading as the Israeli military Saturday bombed an apartment belonging to Islamic Jihad commander Mohammed Abu Al Atta, among other targets including rocket launchers, it said.
Islamic Jihad militants fired a barrage of rockets toward southern Israel, where tens of thousands of Israelis were instructed to remain close to safe rooms and bomb shelters. Hundreds of residents near the border were evacuated to hotels farther north.
Islamic Jihad promised a further onslaught. “As assassinations and the bombing of apartments and safe houses continue, the Palestinian resistance will renew its rocket fire … to emphasize the continuation of the confrontation,” the group said. Mortar shells fired by Palestinian militants crashed into the Erez crossing between Gaza and Israel, the Israeli civil defense body said, sharing footage of a fiery explosion at the main passageway into Israel.
Israeli officials told media that Egyptian-led efforts to broker a cease-fire were still underway but that Israel has ruled out the conditions presented by Islamic Jihad in the talks. Israel has said only that quiet will be answered with quiet, while Islamic Jihad has been reportedly pressing Israel to agree to halt targeted assassinations, among other demands. If the rocket fire continues from Gaza, Israeli officials told local media, “the strikes (on Gaza) will continue and intensify.”
The hostilities erupted on Tuesday when Israel targeted and killed three senior Islamic Jihad commanders who it said were responsible for firing rockets toward the country last week. At least 10 civilians, including women, young children and uninvolved neighbors were killed in those initial strikes, which drew regional condemnation.
Over the past few days, Israel has conducted more airstrikes, killing other senior Islamic Jihad commanders and destroying their command centers and rocket-launching sites. On Friday, Israel killed Iyad al-Hassani, an Islamic Jihad commander who had replaced a leader of the group’s military operations killed in a Tuesday airstrike.
On Saturday, Palestinians ventured out to assess the damage wrought by Israeli warplanes and salvage whatever they could. One man carefully pulled documents out from under the rubble. Another carried away a mattress.
Four homes in densely populated residential neighborhoods were reduced to dust in the pre-dawn attacks. The Israeli military alleged the targeted homes belonged to or were used by Islamic Jihad militants. The residents denied the army’s claims and said they had no idea why their homes were targeted.
“We have no rocket launching pads at all. This is a residential area,” said Awni Obaid, beside the debris of what was his three-story house in the central town of Deir al-Balah.
The nearby house of his relative, Jehad Obaid, was also leveled. He had been standing some hundred meters away when his apartment was bombed.
“I felt like vomiting because of the dust,” he said. “This is extraordinary hatred. They claim they don’t strike at children, but what we see is craziness, destruction.”
Islamic Jihad has retaliated by firing a thousand rockets toward southern and central Israel. On Friday, the group escalated its assaults and fired rockets toward Jerusalem, setting off air raid sirens in the Israeli settlements south of the contested capital.
Most of the rockets have fallen short or been intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome aerial defense system. But a rocket on Thursday penetrated missile defenses and sliced through a house in the central city of Rehovot, killing an 80-year-old woman and wounding several others.
Hamas, the larger militant group that has controlled Gaza since seizing power in 2007, has praised Islamic Jihad’s strikes but remained on the sidelines, according to Israeli military officials, limiting the scope of the conflict.
As the de facto government held responsible for the abysmal conditions in the blockaded Gaza Strip, Hamas has recently tried to keep a lid on its conflict with Israel. Islamic Jihad, on the other hand, a more ideological and unruly militant group wedded to violence, has taken the lead in the past few rounds of fighting with Israel.
On Saturday, the deadly Israeli raid into the Balata refugee camp turned the focus of the conflict back to the long-simmering West Bank. Residents said that Israeli forces besieged a militant hideout, sharing footage of a large explosion and smoke billowing from the crowded camp. Ejected bullet casings littered the alleys. Blood soaked the streets. The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the two as 32-year-old Said Mesha and 19-year-old Adnan Araj. At least three other Palestinians were wounded in the raid, the latest of near-daily Israeli arrest operations against suspected militants in the territory.
The Israeli military said the targeted apartment harbored militants who had planned attacks against Israeli soldiers and manufactured improvised explosive devices. It said the blast and fire erupted after Israeli security forces detonated explosives inside the hideout. The two Palestinians were killed when Israeli forces opened fire on a group of gunmen who were shooting at them, the military said.
Israeli-Palestinian fighting has surged in the West Bank under Israel’s most right-wing government in history. Since the start of the year, 111 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, at least half of them affiliated with militant groups, according to a tally by The Associated Press — the highest death toll in some two decades. In that time, 20 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks on Israelis.
Fares Akram And Isabel Debre, The Associated Press