Fighting between Israel and militant groups in the blockaded Gaza Strip has intensified for the third day despite ceasefire efforts brokered by Egypt, in the worst bout of violence in the region in months that has killed 29 people in Gaza, including at least 10 civilians, and one civilian in Israel.
The latest conflagration began in the early hours of Tuesday, when Israel launched surprise airstrikes targeting the homes of three senior commanders in Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the second most powerful group in the strip after Hamas, despite a fragile ceasefire in place since a day of cross-frontier fire last week.
New ceasefire talks mediated by Egyptian officials over the last 24 hours have not yet yielded any concrete results, and Thursday evening’s first fatality on Israeli soil is likely to push the two sides closer to full-scale war.
Muhammad al-Hindi, an Islamic Jihad official, said the factions in Gazawould stop firing if they received an Israeli commitment to ending targeted killing operations, which has so far been refused.
The 2.3 million Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip, who have nowhere to go, as well as Israelis living within range of rocket fire from the coastal enclave, have been left fearing wider escalation as the tit-for-tat fire continues without respite and the toll of dead and injured grows.
“We can’t sleep at night because we worry about bombardment,” Mohammad Abu el-Subbah, 24, standing outside a bakery in Gaza City, told Reuters. “People have no clue what will happen next, whether there will be a truce or whether the war will continue.”
Senior international figures issued statements urging Israel and Palestinian militants to deescalate, including neighbouring Jordan and Egypt, the EU, UN and US.
“We urge an immediate comprehensive ceasefire which will end Israeli military operations in Gaza and current rocket firing against Israel, which is unacceptable,” the EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, said.
The US state department deputy spokesperson, Vedant Patel, said: “We continue to call on both sides to take steps that will not incite tensions and further incite violence and of course, would ask all sides to take prudent steps to ensure that civilian life is not harmed.”
On Thursday, Israel Defence Forces (IDF) airstrikes on Gaza killed another two senior Islamic Jihad officials. The group confirmed the two commanders’ deaths.
Unrelenting salvos of rocket fire also hit southern and central Israel throughout the day. Israel’s powerful Iron Dome air defence system intercepted nearly 200 projectiles, and the Israeli military said it had successfully deployed David’s Sling, a new mid-range air defence missile system, for the first time, without giving further details.
One rocket hit an apartment building in the city of Sderot on Thursday afternoon, killing one person and seriously injuring another five, according to Israeli medics.
After Tuesday’s initial bombings, Islamic Jihad and Hamas vowed retaliation, which came in the form of barrages of rocket fire on Wednesday afternoon, aimed at towns in southern Israel and Tel Aviv, the country’s commercial and cultural capital, about 40 miles (65km) away.
Daily life in much of Israel has been brought to a standstill: sirens blared throughout the country and communities living near the frontier were instructed to stay close to bomb shelters. The Israeli army said that 620 rockets had been fired at Israel since the salvos began, but a significant proportion had landed inside the strip or otherwise landed in open areas in Israel.
In Gaza, the streets were quiet and there were scenes of destruction in residential areas in different parts of the enclave, with civilians caught in the crossfire unable to flee to safety. Israel said it has targeted some 191 sites, mostly people at rocket launching sites, but it is still unclear whether some of those killed are fighters or civilians.
Through Egyptian mediators, Israel has relayed that it is solely targeting Islamic Jihad, with whom tensions have flared in the last week since thedeath on hunger strike in Israeli custody of Khader Adnan, a prominent political figure affiliated with the group.
Hamas has largely stayed on the sidelines during recent flare-ups. Given Tuesday’s unexpected targeted operation and the high civilian death toll, however, both groups faced significant pressure to respond.
A joint statement from the factions claiming responsibility for the retaliatory fire described it as a “broad response”, but Israeli officials appear to be hoping that Hamas does not want to risk a return to full-blown conflict.
Ceasefire talks, however, have not yet made any significant progress: “Egypt’s efforts to calm things down and resume the political process have not yet borne fruit,” the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, told reporters in Berlin.
Signalling no imminent let-up, the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said strikes were proceeding at full pace.
“Whoever comes to harm us – his blood is forfeit,” he said in a videotaped statement issued during a visit to an airbase.
Tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have soared over the past year: more than 125 Palestinians and at least 20 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in 2023 so far across Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the Islamic militant group seized control of Gaza in 2007, but until last year the West Bank had remained relatively quiet since the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, petered out in 2005.
Gaza’s population has next to no freedom of movement, and healthcare, electricity, sanitation and other crucial infrastructure have all but collapsed in the 16 years since Israel and Egypt imposed a strict blockade after the Hamas takeover.
Source: The Guardian