Israeli forces launched air strikes against the Gaza Strip on Friday, killing around a dozen people, including a senior figure in a local militant group.
Israeli officials said they had carried out the strikes in response to an “imminent threat” and that Taysir al-Jabari, Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s commander in northern Gaza, was among 15 militants killed.
Gaza’s health ministry said that 10 people, including a 5-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman, had been killed, and that more than 55 had been injured.
The Israeli strikes come after a week of mounting tensions following the arrest on Monday of Bassam al-Saadi, another senior Islamic Jihad figure, which prompted fears of retaliation from the militant group.
Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid said the strikes had been carried out to eliminate “a concrete threat” to Israel and its citizens living near the Gaza Strip, a 365 sq km stretch of land sandwiched between Israel, Egypt and the Mediterranean that is home to more than 2mn Palestinians.
“Anyone who tries to harm Israel should know: we will find you,” Lapid said. “The security forces will act against Islamic Jihad terrorists to eliminate the threat they pose to the citizens of Israel.”
Ziad al-Nakhalah, the leader of Islamic Jihad, said in an interview with Al-Quds radio that the group would retaliate and target Tel Aviv with missiles.
Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman for Hamas, the militant group which has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2007, said Israel had “launched a new violent escalation against the Gaza Strip and committed a new crime against the Palestinian people”.
“The Palestinian resistance factions are united in this battle and will not keep silent,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Israel Defense Forces said army reserves had been mobilized to deal with any response from Islamic Jihad or Hamas, which has fought four wars with Israel since 2007, including an 11-day conflict last year, and that the military was expecting rocket attacks on Israel.
Israel has declared a “special situation” within an 80km radius of Gaza, limiting civilian activity within the area. Some roads in southern Israel adjoining Gaza were closed earlier this week by Israeli authorities for fear of retaliation in the wake of the arrest of al-Saadi.
Shaul Shay, a former IDF intelligence official now a lecturer at Reichman University, said that retaliation by Islamic Jihad was “almost unavoidable”, but whether the confrontation escalated more dramatically would depend on the stance of Hamas.
“The main question is how far [Hamas] are ready to go to control Islamic Jihad,” he said. “If they want, theoretically they can contain them. But I don’t see them going to an armed confrontation with Islamic Jihad on behalf of Israel. It won’t work.”
Islamic Jihad, which is backed by Iran and based in Damascus, shares Hamas’s opposition to Israel’s existence. But it is smaller and distinct from Hamas, even though the two groups sometimes co-operate.
Reuven Berko, a former adviser on Arab affairs to Israel’s then civil administration in the Gaza Strip, said al-Jabari had been considered “a very senior commander” in Islamic Jihad, and that his assassination had struck “precisely at the heart” of the group’s operations.