Israeli airstrikes on the blockaded Gaza Strip targeting the militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad have killed three senior operatives and at least nine civilians, including three children, according to the Israeli army and Palestinian officials.
A total of 40 jets took part in Operation Shield and Arrow, the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) said, conducting strikes that lasted about two hours starting at 2am (12am BST) on Tuesday.
In a statement, Islamic Jihad, the second largest militant group in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, confirmed that three of its commanders were killed. Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad vowed to retaliate, and the region remained braced for further violence.
The unexpected Israeli attack came despite a fragile ceasefire in place since a day of cross-frontier exchanges of fire last week triggered by the death on hunger strike of Khader Adnan, a prominent political figure affiliated with Islamic Jihad held in Israeli custody.
On Tuesday, large public funeral processions in Gaza got under way, while the Israeli defence ministry prepared to evacuate around 6,500 Israelis living near the frontier in case of further fighting.
Israel reportedly relayed messages to Hamas via Egyptian mediators that it was targeting the smaller Islamic Jihad rather than the dominant militant group. Wary of escalation, Hamas has stayed on the sidelines during recent escalations, while allowing Islamic Jihad to operate. But given Tuesday’s unusual targeted operation, and the high death toll, Hamas is now under significant pressure to respond.
Tensions in the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict have soared over the past year: more than 100 Palestinians and at least 19 Israelis and foreigners have been killed in 2023 so far across Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip, leading to fears of wider escalation.
“We do not accept that this is an attack specifically directed at the Islamic Jihad. From Hamas’s point of view, this is an attack against the Palestinian people, and therefore there will be a proportionate response whose details will be determined by the joint operations room of all factions,” spokesperson Hazem Qassem said in a statement.
Dawood Shahab, an Islamic Jihad official, said there would be a “unified Palestinian response” to the strikes at a time and place of its choosing.
Witnesses in Gaza said an explosion hit the top floor of an apartment building in Gaza City and a house in the southern city of Rafah, while the IDF said later strikes targeted 10 military and weapons production sites. The Palestinian health ministry said that along with the three commanders, their wives, several of their children and others nearby were also killed – 13 in all, while a further 20 people were injured.
The Russian consulate in Ramallah said on Tuesday that a Russian citizen, Dr Jamal Hasouan, a well-known dentist, was killed together with his wife Mirfat and son Yusef when a missile hit their building. The family’s 13–year-old daughter was the sole survivor of the attack.
An Israeli military spokesperson said the army was looking into reports of civilian deaths but had no immediate comment. Neighbouring Egypt and Jordan, which both play meditation roles, condemned the civilian deaths caused by the Israeli attack, as did UN envoy Tor Wennesland, who said said he was “deeply alarmed” and called on all sides “to exercise maximum restraint.”
Clashes between protesters and the Israeli military also broke out in the occupied West Bank city of Nablus overnight in the aftermath of the Gaza strikes, in which six Palestinians were injured with live fire. An IDF soldier was injured by an explosive device near Nablus on Tuesday afternoon.
Israeli media reported that Tuesday’s attack targeted Jihad Ghannam, Khalil al-Bahtini and Tareq Ezzedine, who were allegedly responsible for rocket fire towards Israel during a brief flare-up ignited by an Israeli raid on Jerusalem’s holy al-Aqsa mosque compound, known to Jews as the Temple Mount, during Ramadan in April. That incident also led to rare rocket fire from neighbouring Lebanon.
Palestinian media said the three killed commanders had been due to travel to Cairo on Tuesday for further ceasefire talks, and decided to sleep at home the night before as they did not think they were active targets.
In a statement, Israel’s defence minister, Yoav Gallant, said: “Any terrorist who harms Israeli citizens will be made to regret it.”
The two crossings from Israel to Gaza for people and goods were closed on Tuesday, as were many roads and schools in southern Israeli towns on the Gaza periphery, and residents were instructed to stay close to bomb shelters. Gallant has approved drafting reservists, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, announced a security cabinet meeting later in the day.
Operation Arrow and Shield has pleased the far-right elements of his fractious governing coalition, who had criticised the Likud party leader for not responding earlier, or with greater force. Jewish Power, the extremist party headed by national security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, announced it would drop a cabinet and Knesset meeting boycott in response.
The airstrikes were similar to a surprise three-day-long campaign in August 2022, carried out by Israel’s previous government, under domestic pressure before elections. That operation killed 49 Palestinians, including 19 children, in an attack targeting top Islamic Jihad commanders.
Tuesday’s strikes come as the West Bank is already in the throes of the worst violence in the territory in decades. For more than a year, the Israeli military has been conducting near-nightly raids mainly in the cities of Nablus and Jenin which it says aim to dismantle militant networks and thwart planned attacks on Israelis. About half of this year’s Palestinian death toll of 105 are civilians, according to rights groups and media tallies.