Miami Herald (Sunday)

Israel and Gaza militants exchange fire after airstrikes kill at least 15



Israeli airstrikes flattened homes in Gaza on Saturday and rocket barrages into southern Israel persisted, raising fears of an escalation in a conflict that has killed at least 15 people in the coastal strip.

The fighting began with Israel’s killing of a senior commander of the Palestinia­n Islamic Jihad militant group in a wave of strikes Friday that Israel said were meant to prevent an imminent attack. A 5-year-old girl and two women are among those killed in the strikes.

So far, Hamas, the larger militant group that rules Gaza, appeared to stay on the sidelines of the conflict, keeping its intensity somewhat contained. Israel and Hamas fought a war barely a year ago, one of four major conflicts and several smaller battles over the last 15 years that wreaked a staggering cost to the impoverish­ed territory’s 2 million Palestinia­n residents.

Whether Hamas continues to stay out of the fight likely depends in part on how much punishment Israel inflicts in Gaza as rocket fire steadily continues.

On Saturday afternoon, Israeli warplanes stepped up strikes with hits on four residentia­l buildings in Gaza City, all locations apparently linked to Islamic Jihad militants. The destructio­n was the heaviest yet in the current exchange within the densely packed city, but there were no reports of casualties. In each case, the Israeli military warned residents ahead of the strikes.

Another strike Saturday hit a car, killing a 75-yearold woman and wounding six other people.

In one of the strikes, after the warnings, fighter jets dropped two bombs on the house of an Islamic Jihad member. The blast flattened the two-story structure, leaving a large rubble-filled crater, and badly damaged surroundin­g homes.

Women and children rushed out of the area.

“Warned us? They warned us with rockets and we fled without taking anything,” said Huda Shamalakh, who lived next door. She said 15 people lived in the targeted home.

The lone power plant in Gaza ground to a halt at noon Saturday for lack of fuel as Israel has kept its crossing points into Gaza closed since Tuesday. With the new disruption, Gazans can get only 4 hours of electricit­y a day, increasing their reliance on private generators and deepening the territory’s chronic power crisis amid peak summer heat.

Throughout the day, Gaza militants regularly launched rounds of rockets into Israel. The Israeli military said Saturday evening that nearly 450 rockets had been fired, 350 of which made it into Israel, but almost all were intercepte­d by Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. Two people suffered minor shrapnel wounds.

One rocket barrage was fired toward Tel Aviv, setting off sirens that sent residents to shelters, but the rockets were either intercepte­d or fell into the sea, the military said.

Sunday could be a critical day in the flare-up, as Jews mark Tisha B’av, a somber day of fasting that commemorat­es the destructio­n of the biblical temples. Thousands are expected at Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and Israeli media reported that the Israeli leadership was expected to allow lawmakers to visit a key hilltop holy site in the city that is a flashpoint for violence between Israelis and Palestinia­ns.

Egypt on Saturday intensifie­d efforts to prevent escalation, communicat­ing with Israel, the Palestinia­ns and the United States to keep Hamas from joining the fighting, an Egyptian intelligen­ce official said.

The Palestinia­n Health Ministry put the toll at 15 killed and said more than 80 were wounded. The ministry did not differenti­ate between civilians and militants. The Israeli military said early estimates were that around 15 fighters were killed.

On Friday evening, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a televised speech that “Israel isn’t interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but will not shy away from one either.”

The violence poses an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister ahead of elections in November, when he hopes to keep the position.

Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has experience in diplomacy having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has thin security credential­s.

Hamas also faces a dilemma in deciding whether to join a new battle barely a year after the last war caused widespread devastatio­n. There has been almost no reconstruc­tion since then, and the isolated coastal territory is mired in poverty, with unemployme­nt hovering around 50%. Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the territory since the Hamas takeover in 2007.

 ?? FATIMA SHBAIR AP ?? Rockets fired Saturday by Palestinia­n militants toward Israel in Gaza City marked the latest confrontat­ion between militants on a second day of fighting.
FATIMA SHBAIR AP Rockets fired Saturday by Palestinia­n militants toward Israel in Gaza City marked the latest confrontat­ion between militants on a second day of fighting.

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