Israel’s army and Palestinian militants exchanged heavy cross-border fire on Wednesday, with hundreds of rockets launched from Gaza towards Israel after the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) carried out deadly strikes on what it says are Islamic Jihad organization targets along the strip.
The latest violence came after Israeli military airstrikes earlier in the week killed three leaders of the Palestinian militant group and 10 other Palestinian men, women and children in Gaza and led to threats of retaliation.
In a new update early Thursday, the IDF said it had targeted another Islamic Jihad commander who was a “central figure” in the Palestinian militant group.
“We just targeted Ali Ghali, the commander of Islamic Jihad’s Rocket Launching Force, as well as two other Islamic Jihad operatives in Gaza,” the IDF said in a tweet, adding that Ghali was “responsible for the recent rocket barrages launched against Israel.”
Israel has been bombarding the Islamic Jihad’s operatives and infrastructure, using unmanned drones for surveillance as it monitors militant preparations to propel rockets, IDF chief spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Wednesday.
At least six Palestinians were killed in Wednesday’s airstrikes, the Ministry of Health in Gaza said, revising down its earlier count.
Hamas, the Palestinian militant movement that runs Gaza, issued a statement Wednesday strongly suggesting that its forces were releasing rockets towards Israel, shortly after the IDF said firmly it believed Hamas was not doing so.
“The Palestinian resistance with all its factions, led by the Nasser Salah al-Din Brigades, is participating now in a unified manner by teaching the enemy a lesson that it will not forget and confirming that Palestinian blood is not cheap,” said the statement, issued by Muhammad al-Buraim, an official in the joint resistance committees in Palestine.
The statement appeared designed to reject an assertion by IDF chief spokesman Hagari that the IDF saw only Islamic Jihad, not Hamas, firing rockets.
Nearly 500 rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel in the recent barrage, according to the IDF, as of 9:30 p.m. local time. Of those, 153 were intercepted by Israeli missile defenses and 107 fell short, landing in Gaza.
The IDF said fighter jets and helicopters targeted over 40 rocket and mortar shells launchers belonging to Islamic Jihad terrorist across the Gaza Strip, adding that it is continuing to target launchers and additional posts belonging to the militant organization.
Civilians in Israel have been asked to act according to the special instructions posted on the National Emergency Portal.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials Wednesday downplayed the idea that a ceasefire with Islamic Jihad was imminent, with Netanyahu saying: “The campaign is not over yet.”
National Security Council chair Tzachi Hanegbi said that rumors of a ceasefire were “premature,” while Defense Minister Yoav Gallant struck a slightly more optimistic note, saying: “I hope we’ll bring it to an end soon, but we’re ready for the option that it will be prolonged.”
Over half a million Israelis were in or near shelters, the IDF spokesman Hagari said just after 2 p.m. local time (7 a.m. ET) on Wednesday.
Calls for restraint
International leaders have condemned the hostilities. The United Nations Secretary-General urged all parties to exercise “maximum restraint” over the escalation of violence in Gaza, a statement by Farhan Haq, deputy spokesperson for the Secretary-General, said on Wednesday.
“The Secretary General condemns the civilian loss of life, including that of children and women, which he views as unacceptable and must stop immediately,” the statement said.
“Israel must abide by its obligations under international humanitarian law, including the proportional use of force and taking all feasible precautions to spare civilians and civilian objects in the conduct of military operations. “
The statement continued to say the Secretary-General also condemns the “indiscriminate launch” of rockets from Gaza into Israel, adding it “violates international humanitarian law and puts at risk both Palestinian and Israeli civilians.”
Qatar has been engaged in “intensive and continuous calls” to stop Israel’s “brutal aggression” on the Gaza Strip to avoid “more losses,” the spokesperson for Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs Majed Al-Ansari said in a statement on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, Egyptian state-affiliated XtraNews said there are “intensive efforts” to reach a ceasefire in Gaza, citing Egyptian sources, without clarifying which parties have been communicated with. The news was carried on Egyptian state newspaper’s Al Ahram’s online website.
Hamas said in a statement that the head of its political bureau, Ismail Haniya, spoke with officials from Egypt, Qatar and the UN.
The Ministry of Health in Gaza said one person was killed in Wednesday’s attack. It named him as Muhammad Yusuf Saleh Abu Ta’ima, 25, and said he was killed in the bombing east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip.
A CNN producer in Gaza reported explosions in Khan Younis, Rafah and northern Gaza.
Shortly after, he saw at least six rockets fired from Gaza towards Israel. Sirens warning of incoming rockets sounded in the southern Israeli cities of Sderot and Ashkelon and the Lachish area, all near the Gaza Strip, the Israel Defense Forces said. Sirens later sounded in Tel Aviv, Israel’s main city on the Mediterranean coast, warning of potential incoming rocket fire.
Several locations in Israel suffered direct hits by rockets from Gaza, authorities said, but there were no immediate reports of casualties. A rocket landed near buildings and caused extensive damage in Ashkelon, pictures distributed by Israel Fire & Rescue Authority showed. A building in Kibbutz Nir Am also was hit, and a rocket landed in the garden of a house in Sderot.
One of the three Islamic Jihad commanders killed on Tuesday was working on capabilities to launch rockets from the West Bank toward Israel, IDF chief spokesman Hagari said at the time.
Rockets have never been fired from the West Bank into Israel.
Islamic Jihad confirmed three of its commanders were killed in the overnight operation along with their wives and children.
The commanders killed were Jihad Shaker Al-Ghannam, secretary of the Military Council in the al Quds Brigades; Khalil Salah al Bahtini, commander of the Northern Region in the al Quds Brigades; and Ezzedine, one of the leaders of the military wing of the al Quds Brigades in the West Bank, the group said.
Hagari said the operation had been planned since last Tuesday, when Islamic Jihad fired more than 100 rockets toward Israel following the death of its former spokesman while on hunger strike in an Israeli prison.
But, the IDF did not have the “operational conditions” until overnight Tuesday.
The IDF launched a further strike on Tuesday, saying its air force targeted “a terrorist squad” belonging to Islamic Jihad in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip.
The Palestinian ministry of health in Gaza said two people were killed and two others injured in that attack east of Khan Younis, although they have yet to identify them, bringing the death toll in Gaza to 15 on Tuesday.
Gaza is one of the most densely packed places in the world, an isolated coastal enclave of almost two million people crammed into 140 square miles.
Governed by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, the territory is largely cut off from the rest of the world by an Israeli blockade of Gaza’s land, air and sea dating back to 2007. Egypt controls Gaza’s southern border crossing, Rafah.
Israel has placed heavy restrictions on the freedom of civilian movement and controls the importation of basic goods into the narrow coastal strip.
CNN’s Richard Allen Greene, Hadas Gold, Abeer Salman and Elliott Gotkine reported from Jerusalem and CNN’s Ibrahim Dahman reported from Gaza. CNN’s Richard Roth reported from New York.