Israel killed two senior Islamic Jihad commanders in Gaza strikes on Thursday, pressing an operation that has cost 28 lives including women and children and been met with hundreds of rockets fired from the Palestinian enclave.
Egypt hosted senior Islamic Jihad official Mohammad al-Hindi in Cairo, part of truce talks to end a flare-up now in its third day, two faction officials and a foreign diplomat told Reuters.
“Egypt’s efforts to calm things down and resume the political process have not yet borne fruit,” Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry told reporters in Berlin.
Signalling no imminent let-up, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said strikes were proceeding at full pace.
“Whoever comes to harm us – his blood is forfeit,” he said in a videotaped statement issued during a visit to an air base.
The deaths of Ali Ghali, head of Islamic Jihad’s rocket force, and of Ahmed Abu Daqqa, a senior commander of its armed wing, brought to five the number of senior figures from the faction killed since Israel began striking Gaza on Tuesday.
Two gunmen from a splinter group died in a separate strike on Thursday. Four women and six children have also been killed.
The military said Ghali and Abu Daqqa helped oversee rocket launches towards Israel over recent days as well as in previous fighting with Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed group allied with Hamas, which rules the small, blockaded coastal territory.
Sirens sent residents to shelters in Israeli towns around Gaza as Iron Dome interceptors shot down some incoming rockets. In Rehovot, a city south of Tel Aviv, a direct hit on a four-storey apartment building wounded three people, medics said.
The military said it had hit 158 targets in Gaza, including a mortar post and a command room for anti-tank missile attacks, as of Thursday morning. At least 523 rockets were launched, 380 of which crossed into Israel where Iron Dome and David’s Sling interceptors had a 96% shootdown rate, it said.
It said more than 100 rockets – many of them improvised – had misfired and fallen short, killing four Palestinians, including a 10-year-old girl. Islamic Jihad denied that.
“Once again Israel tries to escape its responsibility for the killing of civilians through fabrications and lies,” faction spokesman Dawoud Shehab said.
After more than a year of resurgent Israeli-Palestinian violence that has killed more than 140 Palestinians and at least 19 Israelis and foreigners since January, the latest escalation drew international calls for a ceasefire.
Meeting his Jordanian, French and German counterparts in Berlin, Shoukry called on “peace-sponsoring countries to intervene and stop the attacks” and said Israel must “stop the unilateral measures that aim to destroy the future of the Palestinian state”.
Islamic Jihad rejects coexistence with Israel and preaches its destruction. Among terms for a truce, it wants an end to Israeli strikes against its leaders. Israel has rejected that.
“We are not willing to accept delusional demands from Islamic Jihad,” said Yuli Edelstein, head of parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee, on Kan radio. “Every now and then, we have to initiate action.”
‘WE CAN’T SLEEP AT NIGHT’
Both in blockaded Gaza, where residents have been experiencing decades of a worsening humanitarian crisis, and in surrounding Israeli towns, schools and businesses remained shut.
Hundreds of people joined the funeral procession of Ghali and his brother, who was also killed overnight, chanting as they carried flags and as gunmen fired into the air.
“We can’t sleep at night because we worry about bombardment,” said Mohammad Abu el-Subbah, 24, standing outside a bakery in Gaza City. “People have no clue what will happen next, whether there will be a truce or whether the war will continue.”
At least 80 people were wounded in the air strikes that destroyed five buildings and damaged more than 300 apartments, said Salama Marouf, chairman of the Hamas media office.
Israel has kept crossings for the movement of people and goods closed since Tuesday. Israeli authorities estimated that between 30% and 60% of communities around Gaza have evacuated as a precaution. On Wednesday, sirens sounded as far as the commercial capital Tel Aviv, 60 km (37 miles) north of Gaza.
Israeli forces also conducted raids in Tulkarm, a town in the occupied West Bank, where the Palestinian health ministry said they shot dead a 66-year-old man. The military said troops returned fire after one of them was shot and wounded by gunmen.
Israel captured Gaza and the West Bank, areas Palestinians want for an independent state with East Jerusalem as its capital, in a 1967 war. Israeli forces and settlers withdrew from Gaza in 2005. Statehood talks have been frozen since 2014.