The Palestinian Ministry of Health said at least eight people were killed and 44 injured in two initial strikes, 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 by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. A 5-year-old girl was also killed, the ministry said.
The Israel Defense Forces said shortly after the strikes that it was attacking militants belonging to Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Gaza in an operation dubbed “Breaking Dawn.” The first strikes may have been targeting leaders of the al-Quds brigades, Islamic Jihad’s military wing, according to Palestinian media.
An Israeli military spokesman said its planes struck after detecting threatening movements by militant forces and equipment, including antitank units. The IDF acted in expectation that Israeli civilians in the region would be targeted by retaliatory attacks and has put the center part of the country on alert, he said.
Militants were “flexing and moving very, very close to the border,” said Lt. Col. Richard Hecht. “We took the initiative and we haven’t finished yet.”
“We assume there will probably be some rocket attacks into the center of the country,” Hecht said.
After Friday’s action, the military warned residents within 80 kilometers of Gaza, including Tel Aviv, to be alert from rocket fire and issued an emergency alert to last at least until Saturday evening.
Hecht said he had no information on reports that a child was among the fatalities.
Gaza is governed by the Hamas militant group, usually considered a rival of Islamic Jihad. But Hamas condemned the attacks. “The resistance, with all its military arms and factions, is united in this battle and will say its word with full force,” the group said in a statement. “It is no longer possible to accept the continuation of this situation as it is.”
The Israeli military had sealed the checkpoints in and out of Gaza and had closed roads and restricted movements in nearby Israeli communities as tensions spiked 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 take action 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 strikes.
“To our enemies, and specifically to the leadership of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, I would like to emphasize, 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, an Islamic Jihad leader, 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 been coordinating militant activities in 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 in which more than 250 Palestinians and 13 people inside Israel were killed.
Balousha reported from Gaza City.