Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza trade fire; 2 Palestinians killed in West Bank raid
Gaza City (AP) — Israel and Palestinian militants unleashed salvos of fire for a fourth day on Saturday, with the Islamic Jihad militant group launching over a thousand rockets and the Israeli military pounding targets inside the Gaza Strip.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in Gaza or Israel on Saturday. But in a reminder of the combustible situation in the occupied West Bank, the Israeli military raided the Balata refugee camp in the northern city of Nablus, killing two Palestinians. 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.
Meanwhile, hopes for an imminent cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad were fading as the Israeli military early Saturday bombed an apartment belonging to Islamic Jihad commander Mohammed Abu Al Atta, among other buildings in densely populated neighborhoods. Islamic Jihad militants fired a barrage of rockets toward southern Israel, where millions of Israelis were instructed to remain close to safe rooms and bomb shelters.
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 even 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.
The Palestinian Health Ministry has reported 33 Palestinians killed — six of them children — and over 147 wounded.
Islamic Jihad has retaliated by firing 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 one 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 used shoulder-fired rockets to besiege a militant hideout, sharing footage of a large explosion and smoke billowing from the crowded camp. The two Palestinians killed were not the target of the arrest raid, witnesses said, but among the crowds of protesters throwing stones and explosives at Israeli troops. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
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 occupied territory, 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.