Israel carried out an operation that claimed 28 lives in the Gaza Strip, including women and children, by killing two senior Islamic Jihad commanders, while Palestinian cross-border rocket salvos resulted in Israel’s first casualty on Thursday.
After three days of strikes, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu indicated that there will be no upcoming lull in activity.
“Whoever comes to harm us – his blood is forfeit,” he said in a videotaped statement issued during a visit to an air base.
As the firing continued, Egypt hosted senior Islamic Jihad official Mohammad al-Hindi in Cairo to try to mediate an end to the flare-up, two faction officials and a foreign diplomat told Reuters. However there was no sign of an immediate breakthrough.
“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.
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 densely populated 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 building killed one person and wounded five, medics said.
“Our people must be proud of this blessed response,” Islamic Jihad said in a statement.
The death was the first fatality in this round of fighting in Israel, whose Iron Dome and David’s Sling rocket interceptors have had a 96% shootdown rate, the military says.
Israeli strikes hit 158 targets in Gaza as of Thursday morning, the military said. At least 523 rockets were launched, 380 of which crossed into Israel. As the strikes continued, they hit other targets including a mortar post and a command room for anti-tank missile attacks as well as rocket launchers.
The military said over 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 Jordanian, French and German counterparts in Berlin, Shoukry urged “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 spurns 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.”
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.
“We can’t sleep at night because we worry about bombardment,” said Mohammad Abu el-Subbah, 24, 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.
As the firing continued in Gaza, the military said it had arrested 25 people in the occupied West Bank associated with Islamic Jihad. In the West Bank town of Tulkarm, the Palestinian health ministry said Israeli forces 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.