The Guardian / May 10, 2023
Tit-for-tat rocket fire follows claims that Egyptian officials brokered pause in conflict between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants.
Israel and Palestinian militant groups in the blockaded Gaza Strip have continued fighting despite reports of ceasefire negotiations, in a bloody episode of violence that has left 21 people in Gaza dead and brought daily life in Tel Aviv to a standstill.
An Egyptian state-run station with close ties to the security agencies said on Wednesday evening that Egyptian officials – who frequently mediate in the conflict – had successfully brokered a pause in the fighting. But the tit-for-tat fire continued late into the night, suggesting the truce had not held.
Gaza militants fired about 400 rockets into Israel on Wednesday in response to surprise Israeli airstrikes beginning the day before that killed 21 people, including three Islamic Jihad senior commanders and at least 10 civilians.
A late-night bombing of a building in the southern Gaza area of Khan Younis killed the head of Islamic Jihad’s rocket launching force, identified as Ali Ghali, and two other militants, the Israeli military and Islamic Jihad said.
Several salvoes in less than an hour set off air raid sirens in towns and cities across southern Israel on Wednesday afternoon, including the country’s commercial and cultural hub, Tel Aviv, 40 miles away.
Israel’s powerful Iron Dome air defence system intercepted at least 62 projectiles, and there was one report of a serious injury. The Israeli military also said it had successfully deployed David’s Sling, a new mid-range air defence missile system, for the first time, but did not give further details.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan emphasized the need for de-escalation during a call on Wednesday with the head of Israel’s national security council, Tzachi Hanegbi, the White House said.
Sullivan “noted continued regional efforts to broker a ceasefire, and emphasized the need to deescalate tensions and prevent further loss of life,” according to a White House readout.
Israelis living in the south of the country, as well as the 2.3 million Palestinians trapped in the Gaza Strip, had been bracing for escalation since Israeli bombings in the early hours of Tuesday targeted senior Islamic Jihad operatives, launched despite a fragile ceasefire in place since last week’s day of cross-frontier exchanges of fire.
On Tuesday, after the initial Israeli bombardment, about 6,500 Israelis were evacuated from their homes near the Gaza periphery by the Defence ministry, and schools and several roads were closed in anticipation of a response from Gaza’s militant groups.
Both Islamic Jihad and Hamas, the larger and more powerful movement in control of the strip, vowed to retaliate.
Through Egyptian mediators, Israel has relayed that it is solely targeting Islamic Jihad, with whom tensions have flared since the death on hunger strike in Israeli custody of Khader Adnan, a prominent political figure affiliated with Islamic Jihad.
Hamas has expressed solidarity with its smaller counterpart, and the two groups often coordinate, but it has largely stayed on the sidelines during the recent conflagrations. Given Tuesday’s unusual targeted operation, and the high death toll, however, both groups faced significant pressure to respond.
A joint statement from the factions claiming responsibility for the barrage of fire from Gaza described it as a “broad response”, but Israeli officials appear to be hoping that Hamas does not want to risk a return to full-scale conflict.
Officials in an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) briefing said they had not detected active involvement from the larger group, even though a Hamas spokesperson, Abdellatif al-Kanou, claimed that it had participated.
“Our actions are meant to prevent further escalation,” Rear Adm Daniel Hagari, the Israeli military’s chief spokesperson, said in a briefing with journalists. “Israel is not interested in war.”
Protracted Israeli strikes across the strip on Tuesday and Wednesday that the IDF said targeted rocket launcher sites killed 21 people and injured 64, according to the Palestinian health ministry, including five children.
At least 10 were civilians, including Dr Jamal Hasan, a dentist, who was killed together with his wife, Mirfat, and 20-year-old son, Yusef, when a missile hit their building. The family’s 13-year-old daughter was left orphaned.
Tensions in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have soared over the past year: more than 100 Palestinians and at least 19 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in 2023 so far across Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, leading to worries that a return to full-scale conflict is on the horizon.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the Islamic militant group took control of Gaza in 2007, but the West Bank has remained relatively quiet since the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, of the 2000s.
Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian