Fares Akram & Ilan Ben Zion
AP / May 10, 2023
GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Palestinian militants fired dozens of rockets from the Gaza Strip into Israel on Wednesday, in a first response to ongoing Israeli airstrikes that have killed 19 Palestinians, including three senior militants and at least 10 civilians.
The rocket fire set off air-raid sirens throughout southern Israel and as far away as Tel Aviv, on the Mediterranean Sea, 80 kilometers (50 miles) away. Residents had been bracing for an attack since Israel carried out its first airstrikes early Tuesday.
It was the heaviest fighting between the sides in months, pushing the region closer toward a full-blown war. But in signs that both sides were trying to show restraint, Israel avoided attacks on the ruling Hamas militant group, targeting only the smaller Islamic Jihad faction. Hamas, meanwhile, appears to be remaining on the sidelines.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars since the Islamic militant group took control of Gaza in 2007.
As rocket fire continued, Israeli TV stations showed air defense systems intercepting rockets above the skies of Tel Aviv. In the nearby suburb of Ramat Gan, people lay face-down on the ground as they took cover during one attack.
In a move that could further raise tensions, Israeli police said they would permit a Jewish ultranationalist parade to take place next week. The parade, meant to celebrate Israel’s capture of east Jerusalem and its Jewish holy sites, marches through the heart of the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and often leads to friction with local Palestinian residents.
As air raid sirens continued to wail, Israeli media said at least 100 rockets had been fired. Israeli rescuers said two people were hurt running for shelter, and local officials said an empty home in the southern town of Sderot was struck.
Throughout the day, Israeli aircraft hit targets in Gaza for the second straight day, killing at least three Palestinians. The Israeli military said its warplanes targeted 40 rocket launchers across the enclave.
Eden Avramov, a 26-year-old resident of the southern Israeli town of Sderot, described the 24 hours since Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza as terrifying. “We are all traumatized from this routine — the waiting, the booms, the alarms.”
Speaking from her home’s bomb shelter, she said she had mixed feelings about the Israeli military’s assault on Gaza. “I am happy to see that they’re responding to last week’s bombs, it feels like they care,” she said. “I just don’t want to see anyone get hurt, here or on the other side.”
Tuesday’s strikes killed three senior Islamic Jihad militants and at least 10 civilians — most of them women and children. Palestinian militants have pledged to retaliate while Israel says it is prepared for a further escalation of hostilities.
The Israeli military has said its attacks were focused on Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant infrastructure in the coastal enclave.
On Wednesday, the army said an airstrike targeted militants traveling to a rocket launcher site in southern Gaza Strip.
Medics said the strike killed one man and seriously wounded another. Later on Wednesday, another airstrike killed a Palestinian in northern Gaza and two Palestinians in the southern city of Rafah. Palestinian officials could not confirm whether the targets were militants.
It also remained unclear whether two Palestinians killed in a separate airstrike late Tuesday were militants or civilians. Israel has claimed the men were preparing to fire anti-tank missiles.
The Israeli military had instructed residents of southern Israel to remain near bomb shelters, and schools were still closed for a second day as a precaution against rocket attacks.
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 members from a hunger strike while in Israeli custody.
Israel says it is trying to avoid conflict with Hamas, the more powerful militant group that rules Gaza, and limit the fighting to Islamic Jihad.
“Our actions are meant to prevent further escalation,” said Rear Adm. Danny Hagari, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman. “Israel is not interested in war.”
Hamas has expressed solidarity with its smaller counterpart in Gaza, and the two groups often coordinate with one another.
In a statement, the organization of Palestinian factions in Gaza, including Hamas, said the campaign against Israel — which it dubbed “Avenging the Free” — involved firing hundreds of rockets in retaliation for Israel’s killing of three Islamic Jihad commanders as well as several civilians. “The resistance is ready for all options,” the factions said. “If (Israel) persists in its aggression and arrogance, dark days await it.”
Still, it remained unclear whether Hamas had joined the fray. If the ruling militant group is dragged into the fighting, the risk of a full-blown conflict would increase.
Israel has come under international criticism for the high civilian toll on Tuesday, which included wives of two of the militant commanders, some of their children and a dentist who lived in one of the targeted buildings along with his wife and son.
In past conflicts, rights groups have accused Israel of committing war crimes due to high civilian deaths. Israel says it does its utmost to avoid civilian casualties and holds militant groups responsible, saying they operate in heavily populated residential areas and use residents as human shields.
Meanwhile, Israeli police said they would allow the annual flag-waving march marking “Jerusalem Day” to take place along its traditional route through a main Palestinian thoroughfare in the Old City on Thursday next week. The decision could raise the risk of further violence.
Thousands of Israeli nationalists take part each year, with some chanting racist slogans, as they walk across the Old City to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray, in the Jewish Quarter. Last year’s march was marked by violence, and in 2021, the march helped trigger a rocket attack on Jerusalem and 11-day war with Hamas.
Earlier on Wednesday, the military said that Palestinian gunmen opened fire at troops in the Palestinian town of Qabatiya in the northern West Bank during an army raid. Troops returned fire, killing the two men, and confiscated their firearms, it said.
The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the slain men as Ahmed Assaf, 19, and Rani Qatanat, 24. The Islamic Jihad militant group later claimed the two men as its members.
Israel has been conducting near-daily military raids in the occupied West Bank for over a year to detain suspected Palestinian militants, including many from Islamic Jihad. The northern West Bank city of Jenin and its environs have been the frequent target of such raids as it has emerged as a hub of Palestinian militant activity.
Israel says the raids in the West Bank are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks.
At least 107 Palestinians, around half of them militants, have been killed by Israeli fire in the occupied West Bank since the start of 2023, according to an Associated Press tally. At least 20 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks targeting Israelis.
Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Mideast war. The Palestinians seek all three territories for a future independent state.
Ben Zion reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Isabel DeBre and Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report