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Israel pounds Gaza with air strikes, arrests militant suspects in West Bank

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Israel stormed Gaza with airstrikes on Saturday, prompting the firing of Palestinian retaliatory missiles as Israeli forces expanded their offensive in the West Bank and arrested 20 people in early morning raids. Israel’s latest “preemptive counter-terrorism operation” has sparked fears of escalating violence in the Palestinian territories.

Israel unleashed another wave of airstrikes on Gaza after Friday’s attack, which killed 10 people, including a five-year-old girl, and injured 79 others, according to Palestinian health authorities. The Israeli military estimates that its operation killed 15 militants.

Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the Jewish state was forced to conduct a “preemptive counter-terror operation against an imminent threat” leveled by the Islamic Jihad group after days of tensions along the Gaza border.

Israel and Islamic Jihad have both confirmed the killing of a top leader of the militant group, Taysir al-Jabari, during a Friday strike at a building in western Gaza City.

Islamic Jihad said the first Israeli bombing amounted to a “declaration of war” before unleashing a flurry of more than 100 rockets at Israel.

Meanwhile, in the West Bank, Israel announced the arrest of 20 people, including 19 members of Islamic Jihad, during early morning raids.

An army statement said soldiers and agents of Shin Bet’s internal security service had operated in various locations in the West Bank “to arrest Islamic Jihad terrorists”.

Of the 20 people detained in the latest series, 19 are from Islamic Jihad, the military said.

The latest deadly escalation in Gaza was sparked by Israel’s arrest earlier this week in the West Bank of Bassem al-Saadi, a key member of Islamic Jihad that Israel has been blamed for orchestrating a wave of attacks.

Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed Islamist group, has a strong presence in Gaza and the West Bank, a Palestinian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

Israel insisted that Islamic Jihad militants in Gaza planned to attack southern Israel in retaliation for Saadi’s arrest, and force the country to launch what the military called “preemptive” attacks.

A ‘declaration of war’

Islamic Jihad said the first Israeli bombing amounted to a “declaration of war” before unleashing a flurry of more than 100 rockets at Israel.

The rocket fire and Israeli attacks continued overnight, risking a repeat of an 11-day conflict in May 2021 that devastated Gaza and forced countless Israelis to rush to air raid shelters.

“Israel is not interested in a wider conflict in Gaza, but will not shy away from it,” Lapid said in a nationally televised speech.

Air raid sirens sounded at night in several places in southern and central Israel, but there were no immediate reports of casualties.

Officials in border areas urged people to stay close to shelters, which also opened in the commercial capital Tel Aviv.

The military had initially confirmed at least 70 rocket launches from Gaza and said 11 had fallen into the strip, with dozens intercepted by the Iron Dome air defense system, and others had landed in open areas.

The warnings for airstrikes and Israeli strikes had at least temporarily abated at 4:30 a.m. local time.

Egypt, a historic mediator between Israel and armed groups in Gaza, sought to mediate and could receive an Islamic Jihad delegation later Saturday, Egyptian officials told AFP in Gaza.

Escalation, mediation

Hamas has fought four wars with Israel since taking control of Gaza in 2007, including last May’s conflict. Islamic Jihad is a separate group, aligned with Hamas, but also acting independently.

A flare-up with Islamic Jihad came in 2019, after Israel’s assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, Jabari’s predecessor.

Hamas’ actions amid the current violence could be crucial in determining its severity, with the group being pressured by some to remain calm in order to improve economic conditions in the area.

Gaza City resident Abdullah al-Arayshi said the situation was “very tense”. “The country is devastated. We have had enough of wars. Our generation has lost its future,” he told AFP.

Hamas said Israel has “committed a new crime for which it must pay the price”.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are considered terrorist organizations by much of the West.

Five-year-old girl among victims

Flames poured out of a building in Gaza City after the first round of attacks, as wounded Palestinians were evacuated by medics.

Gaza’s health ministry reported that “a five-year-old girl targeted by the Israeli occupation” was among the nine dead.

Five-year-old Alaa Kaddum had a pink bow in her hair and a wound on her forehead when her body was carried by her father at her funeral.

Hundreds of mourners gathered in Gaza City for the funerals of Jabari and others killed in the airstrikes.

Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht said “we estimate about 15 dead in action” in Gaza, referring to Palestinian fighters.

Israeli tanks lined the border and the military said Thursday it was bolstering its troops.

UN Peace Envoy for the Middle East, Tor Wennesland, said he was “deeply concerned” and warned the escalation was “very dangerous”.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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