GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip killed two militant commanders on Thursday, the army said, as the Palestinian death toll from the latest burst of fighting rose to 28. Rocket fire toward southern Israel continued even as Egypt pressed on with attempts to broker a cease-fire.
It has been the worst bout of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza in months, and among the dead were also women and children. The conflagration, now in its third day, comes at a time of soaring tensions and spiking violence over the past year in the occupied West Bank.
Early on Thursday, the Israeli military carried out strikes against the Islamic Jihad militant group and said a senior commander in charge of the group’s rocket launching force, Ali Ghali, was killed when his apartment was hit.
Later in the day, Israel said it killed another Islamic Jihad commander who was meant to replace Ghali in southern Gaza. Islamic Jihad confirmed the man, Ahmed Abu Daqqa, was one of its commanders.
The Health Ministry in Gaza said 28 people — including at least 10 civilians — have been killed since the fighting erupted. Among the dead were at least nine Islamic Jihad militants and nine others, including four whom Israel says were killed in failed rocket launches, whose affiliation remained uncertain.
Military spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told Israeli Army Radio that two other militants were also killed in the early morning strike, although no group immediately claimed them as members, and that the rest of the building remained intact.
“The apartment was targeted in a very precise way,” Hagari said. “I hope this leads to a reduction, a blow and a disruption of the Islamic Jihad rocket abilities.”
The strikes targeted the top floor of a building in a residential, Qatari-built complex in southern Gaza Strip. The pre-dawn airstrike in the city of Khan Younis caused damage to three surrounding buildings. The complex, known as Hamad City, consists of several tall buildings and thousands of housing units. The strike created panic among residents, with falling debris and shattered glass littering the streets.
“My children started crying. I did not see anything because of the dust, broken glasses, and debris,” said Abdullah Hemaid, who lives across from the targeted building.
Islamic Jihad said Ghali was a commander in charge of its rocket squad and a member of its armed group’s decision-making body. The group has said it will only cease fire if Israel agrees to halt targeted killings of its fighters.
The current round of fighting erupted overnight Tuesday when Israel killed three senior Islamic Jihad commanders in near-simultaneous airstrikes.
Following intense fighting on Wednesday, when rockets rained down on southern and central Israel and airstrikes pounded Gaza, a state-run Egyptian TV station announced that Egypt, a frequent mediator between the sides, had brokered a cease-fire. But with the violence continuing into Thursday, it was unclear where progress on the talks stood.
The Israeli military says that in its strikes on some 150 targets, it has zeroed in on militants with what it says are precision strikes. But children, among them a 4-year-old, were also killed. Hagari, the military spokesman, told Army Radio that a quarter of the rockets launched during this round of fighting fell in Gaza, killing at least four, including a 10-year-old girl, two 16-year-olds and a 51-year-old man. That claim could not immediately be independently confirmed.
Efforts to mediate a cease-fire were still underway Thursday with top Islamic Jihad political bureau member Mohamad al-Hindi arriving to Cairo to discuss details. A delegation of Egyptian mediators also was traveling to Israel, according to Israeli press reports, but Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry said that “despite our strenuous efforts, these efforts still have not yielded the desired fruits and results.”
Israeli officials declined to comment.
The initial Israeli airstrikes set off a burst of rocket fire on Wednesday that triggered air-raid sirens throughout southern and central Israel. Damage was reported when rockets slammed into buildings that were empty because residents had fled the area. The military said more than 500 rockets were fired toward Israel. It said most were intercepted by Israel’s missile defense system or fell in open areas.
Israel says the airstrikes are a response to a barrage of rocket fire launched last week by Islamic Jihad in response to the death of one of its West Bank members from a hunger strike while in Israeli custody.
Israel has come under international criticism for the high civilian toll. In past conflicts, rights groups have accused Israel of committing war crimes due to high civilian deaths. Israel says it does its utmost to avoid civilian casualties and holds militant groups responsible because they operate in heavily populated residential areas. It also says militants fire rockets indiscriminately at Israeli communities.
The latest outburst has pushed the region closer toward a full-blown war.
But in signs that both sides were trying to show restraint, Israel avoided attacks on the ruling Hamas militant group, targeting only the smaller and more militant Islamic Jihad faction. Hamas, which has much more to lose than Islamic Jihad, also has remained on the sidelines.
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and numerous smaller engagements since the Islamic militant group took control of Gaza in 2007.
The army said that schools would remain closed and restrictions on large gatherings would remain in place in southern Israel until at least Friday. Residents were instructed to stay near bomb shelters.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, where Israeli-Palestinian violence has surged over the past year, the Palestinian Health Ministry said a 30-year-old man died after he was shot by Israeli troops in a raid on Wednesday, and that a 66-year-old Palestinian man died after he was shot during a gun battle between Israeli troops and Palestinian militants in a refugee camp near the northern West Bank city of Tulkarem on Thursday.
The Israeli army said it has arrested 25 suspected Islamic Jihad members in West Bank raids in recent days.
By FARES AKRAM and ILAN BEN ZION Associated Press
Ben Zion reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Tia Goldenberg in Tel Aviv, Israel, contributed to this report.
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