Israel stormed Gaza on Friday with airstrikes, killing more than 15 people, including a top militant, and triggering a barrage of retaliatory rocket fire from the area.
Israel said it launched a preemptive strike against Islamic Jihad, killing a top commander of the Palestinian militant group it blames for a series of recent attacks in Israel.
Islamic Jihad said the Israeli bombing amounted to a “declaration of war” hours before it unleashed an “initial response” of more than 100 rockets on Israel.
There were no immediate reports of casualties in Israel as officials in the country’s commercial capital, Tel Aviv, said they were opening the city’s air raid shelters.
But in Gaza, a child was among the dead, according to the health ministry, which is led by the Islamist movement Hamas.
Hamas has fought four wars with Israel since it seized control of Gaza in 2007, most recently in May last year. Islamic Jihad is a separate group, but in line with Hamas.
The Israeli attacks were underway late Friday, targeting what the military described as militant targets in the area it has blocked since its takeover by Hamas.
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said the attacks were a “precise counter-terror operation against an imminent threat”.
– Five-year-old girl –
Flames poured out of a building in Gaza City after the first round of attacks, as wounded Palestinians were evacuated by medics.
Gaza’s health ministry reported that “a five-year-old girl targeted by the Israeli occupation” was among the nine dead. Another 55 Palestinians were injured, the ministry said.
Five-year-old Alaa Kaddum had a pink bow in her hair and a wound on her forehead when her body was carried by her father at her funeral.
Islamic Jihad said several members of its military wing were among the dead, including “the great fighter Taysir al-Jabari ‘Abu Mahmoud’, the commander of the Al-Quds Brigade in the northern region of the Gaza Strip.”
Hundreds of mourners gathered in Gaza City for the funerals of Jabari and others killed in the airstrikes.
Israeli military spokesman Richard Hecht said “we estimate about 15 dead in action” in Gaza, referring to Palestinian fighters.
Israeli tanks lined the border and the military said Thursday it was bolstering its troops.
US Ambassador Tom Nides said Washington “firmly believes that Israel has a right to protect itself”.
“We are in talks with several parties and are urging all parties to calm down,” he wrote on Twitter.
United Nations Peace Envoy for the Middle East, Tor Wennesland, said he was “deeply concerned” and warned the escalation was “very dangerous”.
– ‘Paying the price’ –
The attacks come four days after Israel closed its two border crossings with Gaza and restricted the movement of Israeli civilians living near the border, citing security concerns.
The measures follow the arrest in the occupied West Bank of two senior members of Islamic Jihad, which has a strong presence in Gaza. The militant group did not carry out any attacks on Israeli territory after the arrests.
Gaza City resident Abdullah al-Arayshi said the situation was “very tense”. “The country is devastated. We have had enough of wars. Our generation has lost its future,” he told AFP.
Hamas, the militant group that rules Gaza, said Israel has “committed a new crime for which it must pay the price”.
“The resistance in all its military weapons and factions is united in this struggle and will speak loudly … All fronts must open fire on the enemy,” it said in a statement.
Lapid, who met his security chiefs throughout the day, said: “Anyone trying to harm Israel should know — we will find you.”
Islamic Jihad is blacklisted as a terrorist organization by the European Union and the United States.
The office of Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas said the Israeli military action amounted to a “dangerous escalation” and called on the international community to curb Israeli “aggression”.
The Israeli military banned large gatherings in communities within 80 kilometers (50 miles) of the Gaza border until Saturday night.
The measure follows four days of road closures and other restrictions in the border area.
Palestinians, including patients and people with Israeli work permits, have been banned from leaving the Gaza Strip since Tuesday, while the goods crossing has also been closed.
Gaza’s only power plant is at risk of imminent outage due to a lack of fuel supply through Israel, the manager warned on Thursday.
The closure of the border area this week follows a raid by security forces in the northern Jenin district of the West Bank.
Israeli forces arrested Bassem al-Saadi and another high-ranking member of Islamic Jihad. A 17-year-old member of the group was shot dead by Israeli forces during the raid.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)