The Palestinian Health Ministry said at least eight people were killed and 44 wounded in two initial attacks, one in Gaza City and another in Khanyounis in southern Gaza. Video posted on social media showed extensive damage to at least one multi-story building.
Among those killed was Tayseer Jabari, a top Islamic Jihad leader, according to a statement from Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A 5-year-old girl was also killed, the ministry said.
The Israeli Defense Forces said shortly after the attacks that they targeted militants belonging to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza in an operation called “Breaking Dawn”. The first attacks may have targeted leaders of the al-Quds Brigades, Islamic Jihad’s military wing, according to Palestinian media.
An Israeli military spokesman said its aircraft struck after detecting threatening movements by militant forces and equipment, including anti-tank units. The IDF acted in anticipation that Israeli civilians in the region would be hit by retaliatory attacks and has put the central part of the country on alert, he said.
Militants “were bending and moving very, very close to the border,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht. “We took the initiative and we’re not done yet.”
“We assume that there will probably be some rocket attacks into the middle of the country,” Hecht said.
After Friday’s action, the military warned residents within 80 kilometers of Gaza, including Tel Aviv, to be aware of rocket fire and issued an emergency alert that lasted at least until Saturday night.
Hecht said he had no information on reports that a child was among those killed.
Gaza is ruled by the militant group Hamas, usually seen as a rival of Islamic Jihad. But Hamas condemned the attacks. “The resistance, with all its military arms and factions, is united in this fight and will speak its word with full force,” the group said in a statement. “It is no longer possible to accept that this situation continues as it is.”
The Israeli military had sealed off checkpoints in and out of Gaza and had closed roads and restricted movement in nearby Israeli communities as tensions rose in recent days. The move sparked complaints from citizens that they were being held hostage by threats from Gaza and prompted calls from Israeli hard-liners for Israel to act inside the enclave.
“The Israeli government will not allow terrorist organizations in the Gaza Strip to set the agenda in the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of the State of Israel. Anyone who tries to harm Israel should know: We will find you,” Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a statement after the attacks.
“To our enemies, and specifically to the leadership of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, I would like to emphasize that your time is up,” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said during a tour of the area earlier Friday.
Israeli forces had arrested Bassam al-Saadi, a leader of Islamic Jihad, after a firefight in the West Bank city of Jenin on Tuesday. A 17-year-old Palestinian was killed in the exchange. Israel said al-Saadi, 62, had coordinated militant activities in an area known for armed resistance.
The exchange marks the most extensive military engagements between the two sides since an 11-day air war a year ago that killed more than 250 Palestinians and 13 people inside Israel.
Balousha reported from Gaza City.