TEL AVIV — Israeli airstrikes hit several targets in the Gaza Strip on Friday, killing a number of people including a senior commander of a Palestinian militant group in the deadliest escalation of violence in the territory since an 11-day war in May last year.
The strikes hit residential apartments as well as militant watchtowers, killing at least 10 people including a 5-year-old girl, and wounding 55, the Gaza health ministry said. One airstrike killed Taysir al-Jabari, a senior military leader in Islamic Jihad, the second-largest militant group in Gaza, according to both Islamic Jihad and the Israeli military.
The escalation followed one of the least violent phases in Gaza for several years. Since May 2021, there were relatively few exchanges of fire between Israel and Palestinian militants in the territory as tensions shifted to the occupied West Bank. Both Israel and Hamas, the militant group that dominates Gaza, have signaled they sought to avoid another full-scale air war over the enclave, which has been under an Israeli and Egyptian blockade since 2007.
But the unusual intensity of the violence drew warnings of retaliation from the main Palestinian militant groups in Gaza and raised the possibility of days of conflict.
The airstrikes followed almost a week of rising tensions between Israel and Islamic Jihad, a less powerful militant group that often acts independently of Hamas. Israel arrested one of the group’s senior commanders in the West Bank this week, leading to threats of retaliation from the group’s Gaza leadership.
Islamic Jihad had not yet responded to the arrest with an attack, but Israel said it was on the point of doing so and had targeted Mr. al-Jabari and other group members preemptively to prevent it.
“Israel will not allow the terrorist organizations to set the agenda in the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of the State of Israel,” Prime Minister Yair Lapid of Israel said shortly after the attack.
Israel closed crossings into the Gaza Strip this week in anticipation of a retaliatory attack following the arrest in the West Bank.
After the airstrikes, Islamic Jihad said it would respond with force, and cities in southern Israel opened bomb shelters in anticipation of rocket fire from Gaza.
“The enemy has started a war targeting our people and we all need to defend ourselves and our people,” an Islamic Jihad statement said.
It was not immediately clear whether Hamas would join Islamic Jihad, after signaling for months that it wanted to avoid another major war so soon after the conflict in May 2021. In the past, Hamas has occasionally sat on the sidelines as Islamic Jihad clashed with Israel .
But in a statement Friday a Hamas spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum, said that Israel started the escalation against resistance groups in Gaza “and it must pay the price and bear full responsibility for it.” He added that all Gaza’s armed groups were united in the battle against Israel.
Plumes of smoke billowed over the Gazan skyline and on the ground, throngs of rescuers, medics and onlookers gathered in the street near the site where the Islamic Jihad commander had been killed. Photographs posted online showed the commander being carried through a crowd, and a grieving man carrying what appeared to be a dead child covered in a shroud.
Fady Hanona and Iyad Abu Hweila contributed reporting from Gaza City.