Tensions rise in Gaza: Israel launches airstrikes in response to rocket fire from Hamas

Author: Yuvi January 27, 2023

Israel launched airstrikes on Gaza Friday in response to militant rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave, as tensions rise following the deadliest army raid on the occupied West Bank in years.

‘The IDF (Israel Defence Forces) is currently striking in the Gaza strip,’ an army statement read.

Security sources in Hamas Islamist-controlled Gaza told AFP there had been 15 strikes targeting militant sites, with no injuries reported.

The Israeli army said an initial two rockets were fired from Gaza towards Israel around midnight. Shortly after Israel launched retaliatory strikes several hours later, another three rockets were fired from the strip, the army said. Another round of air-raid sirens then sounded in southern Israel.

It was the first such attack from the militant Hamas-ruled territory since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power at the head of a far-right government that has pledged a tough line against Palestinian militancy. 

Israeli forces fire tear gas to disperse Palestinian demonstrators as they protest against the expropriation of Palestinian land on the northern entrance to the city of Ramallah, near the Jewish settlement of Beit El, in the occupied West Bank on January 26, 2023

Most of the Gaza rockets were intercepted by Israel’s air defence system, the army said, adding that one landed in an open area and another fell inside Gaza. 

No group has claimed responsibility for the rocket fire, but Hamas and Islamic Jihad had earlier vowed to respond to Thursday’s army raid in Jenin, which killed nine Palestinians.

Israel described the raid as a ‘counter-terrorism’ operation.

The raid in the Jenin refugee camp and the rocket fire increases the risk of a major flare-up in Israeli-Palestinian fighting, poses a test for Israel’s new hard-line government and casts a shadow on US secretary of State Antony Blinken’s expected trip to the region next week.

Raising the stakes, the Palestinian Authority (PA) said it would halt the ties that its security forces maintain with Israel in a shared effort to contain Islamic militants.

Previous threats have been short-lived, in part because of the benefits the authority enjoys from the relationship and also due to US and Israeli pressure to maintain it.

The PA already has limited control over scattered enclaves in the West Bank, and almost none over militant strongholds such as the Jenin camp. But the announcement could pave the way for Israel to step up operations it says are needed to prevent attacks.

Violent escalations in the West Bank have previously triggered retaliatory rocket fire from the Gaza Strip.

Palestinians burn tires and wave the national flag during a protest against Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, January 26, 2023

Israeli forces in the West Bank and on the Gaza frontier went on heightened alert.

Palestinians filled the streets, chanting in solidarity with Jenin, and President Mahmoud Abbas declared three days of mourning.

In the refugee camp, residents dug a mass grave for the dead.

PA spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh said Mr Abbas had decided to cut security co-ordination in ‘light of the repeated aggression against our people, and the undermining of signed agreements’, referring to commitments from the Oslo peace process in the 1990s. He also said the Palestinians planned to file complaints with the UN Security Council, International Criminal Court and other international bodies.

The PA last cut security co-ordination with Israel in 2020, over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s drive to annex the occupied West Bank, which would make a future Palestinian state all but impossible.

But six months later, the PA resumed co-operation, signalling the financial importance of the relationship and the Palestinians’ relief at the election of US President Joe Biden.

There have been no serious peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians in well over a decade.

Thursday’s gunbattle that left nine dead and 20 wounded erupted when Israel’s military conducted a rare daytime operation in the Jenin camp that it said was meant to prevent an imminent attack on Israelis.

The camp, where the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group has a major foothold, has been a focus of near-nightly Israeli arrest raids.

Hamas’s armed wing claimed four of the dead as members, while Islamic Jihad said three others belonged to the group.

An earlier statement from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade, a militia loosely affiliated with Mr Abbas’s secular Fatah party, claimed one of the dead was a fighter named Izz al-Din Salahat, but it was unclear if he was among those seven militants.

The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the 61-year-old woman killed as Magda Obaid, and the Israeli military said it was looking into reports of her death.

The Israeli military circulated aerial video it said was taken during the battle, showing what appeared to be Palestinians on rooftops hurling stones and firebombs on Israeli forces below.

At least one Palestinian can be seen opening fire from a rooftop.

Later in the day, Israeli forces fatally shot a 22-year-old, the Palestinian Health Ministry said, as young Palestinians confronted Israeli troops north of Jerusalem to protest over Thursday’s raid.

Israel’s paramilitary Border Police said they opened fire on Palestinians who launched fireworks at them from close range.

Tensions have soared since Israel stepped up raids in the West Bank last spring, following a series of Palestinian attacks.

The conflict has only intensified this month, as Israel’s far-right government came to office and pledged a hard line against the Palestinians.

Israel’s new national security minister, far-right politician Itamar Ben-Gvir, who seeks to grant legal immunity to Israeli soldiers who shoot Palestinians, posted a video of himself beaming triumphantly and congratulating security forces. The raid left a trail of destruction in Jenin.

The Israeli rights group B’Tselem said Thursday marked the single bloodiest West Bank incursion since 2002, at the height of an intense wave of violence known as the Second Intifada, or Palestinian uprising, which left scars still visible in Jenin.

UN Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland said he was ‘deeply alarmed and saddened’ by the violence.

Condemnations came from the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation and Turkey, which recently re-established full diplomatic ties with Israel, as well as from neighbouring Jordan.

Saudi Arabia criticised the raid, saying it rejected the ‘serious violations of international law by the Israeli occupation forces’. Qatar, Kuwait and Oman added condemnations.

Nearly 150 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and east Jerusalem last year, making 2022 the deadliest in those territories since 2004, according to B’Tselem. So far this year, 30 Palestinians have been killed. Israel says most of the dead were militants.

But youths protesting against the incursions and others not involved in the confrontations have also been killed.

Israel says its raids are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart attacks.

The Palestinians say they further entrench Israel’s 55-year, open-ended occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war.

The Palestinians claim those territories for their hoped-for state.

Israel has established dozens of settlements in the West Bank that now house 500,000 people.

The Palestinians and much of the international community view settlements as illegal and an obstacle to peace, even as talks to end the conflict have been moribund for more than a decade.

27 January, 2023, 9:18 am

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