Israel killed three Islamic Jihad commanders and 10 civilians in surprise airstrikes in Gaza on Tuesday, Palestinian officials said, drawing threats of reprisals from the faction and censure from Egypt, which has mediated past ceasefires in the enclave.
Signalling it anticipated an imminent flare-up, Israel closed roads in Israeli towns near Gaza, instructed residents there to keep close to bomb shelters, and said it was calling up some military reservists. Images on social media showed Iron Dome rocket interceptor batteries being trucked to the front.
The scope of any escalation could hinge on whether Gaza’s ruling Hamas militants take part, as they did in a 2021 war.
In a bid to deter them, Israeli security cabinet minister Israel Katz told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM that Hamas leaders could be targeted for assassination, too.
While the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Jerusalem have seen a spread of grassroots violence over the past year, exchanges of fire across the Gaza border have also intensified – most recently following the death last week of an Islamic Jihad leader on hunger-strike in Israeli custody.
Islamic Jihad identified the commanders killed on Tuesday as Jihad Ghannam, Khalil Al-Bahtini and Tareq Izzeldeen. The Iranian-sponsored group is on terrorist watchlists in the West.
Medical officials said 10 civilians, including four children and five women, were also killed in the strikes that hit residential areas in congested Gaza, where 2.3 million Palestinians live on 365 sq km (140 sq miles).
Islamic Jihad vowed to “match the size of the crime”.
“The Occupation (Israel) must expect a response at any moment and anywhere,” said group spokesperson Dawoud Shehab.
The Israeli military said it was looking into reports of civilian deaths but had no immediate comment.
“We’re aware of some collateral and we’ll learn more as the day goes ahead,” a military spokesperon told reporters.
The military said 40 jets took part in what it called “pinpoint” strikes. “It was a convergence of intelligence, timing and weather,” a military spokesperson said.
Ten weapons and infrastructure manufacturing sites, including rocket production workshops and a site for making concrete used for tunnels, as well as military compounds belonging to the group were also hit, the spokesperson said.
Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, who has been splitting his time between Turkey and Qatar, said in a statement: “Assassination of leaders will not bring the Occupation (Israel) security but more resistance.”
Egypt, which has used its open channels to Israel and Palestinian militants to mediate truces in the past, said the strikes “contradicted the foundations of international law and international resolutions”.
Videos showed billowing smoke and flames that lit up the night sky as trucks of firefighters sped to a building that had been hit, while a medic reassured a young girl who appeared confused.
“Your family is all safe, don’t worry,” he said.
During the bombardment, Palestinians took to social media to mourn a well-known dentist who was killed at home with his wife, describing him as a loyal friend and humble man.
In another sign Israel was preparing for a flare-up, its foreign minister, Eli Cohen, said he would return early from a visit to India after meeting Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But the developments offered political reprieve for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Jewish Power, a far-right party in his religious-rightist coalition government, said it was ending a boycott of parliamentary voting that it had called last week in protest at what it deemed lax Israeli policy on Gaza.
More than 100 Palestinians and at least 19 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in the strife since January.
The Palestinian foreign ministry strongly condemned Israel’s attack and said a negotiated political solution was the only way to achieve security and stability. Islamic Jihad, like Hamas, refuses coexistence with Israel and preaches its destruction.
Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank, areas that Palestinians want for an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital, in a 1967 war. Some ministers of Israel’s current government have expressed opposition to Palestinian statehood and said there is no such thing as the Palestinian people.
COGAT, a unit of the Israeli defence ministry that coordinates civilian affairs with Palestinians in occupied territories, said its two Gaza crossings were closed to people and goods until further notice.