The Israeli military launched airstrikes against the Islamic Jihad armed group in Gaza on Tuesday, killing three of its leaders, and ending an uneasy weeklong cease-fire between the two sides. Palestinian officials said that the airstrikes had killed at least 10 civilians, including children.
The predawn strikes hit residential buildings across the Palestinian coastal territory of Gaza, roughly a week after an exchange of fire between Islamic Jihad and Israel. The action left both sides bracing for a sharp escalation in cross-border violence.
Islamic Jihad, which Israel, the United States and many other Western countries classify as a terrorist organization, confirmed that three of its senior leaders were among the dead. The Palestinian Ministry of Health in Gaza said that at least 13 people had been killed and 20 others injured. Among the dead were Dr. Jamal Khiswan, a director of the Wafa Hospital in Gaza, and his wife and son, the ministry said.
Two more Palestinians were killed and two injured in an Israeli strike on a car in the city of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on Tuesday evening, the health ministry in Gaza said. The Israeli military said that the passengers were members of an Islamic Jihad squad who were on their way to a launchpad and were carrying a number of anti-tank guided missiles.
Tensions in the region had been high after the death in Israeli custody last week of a Palestinian hunger striker who was a leader of Islamic Jihad. Violence has also been on the rise recently in Israel and the occupied West Bank. The death of the hunger striker, Khader Adnan, was followed by volleys of rockets fired at Israel from Gaza, and retaliatory strikes on the Gaza Strip by the Israeli Air Force.
In the fragile cease-fire that followed in the week after those attacks, members of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pressed for a stronger response to Palestinian armed groups, who had called for retaliation by all Palestinians after the death of Mr. Adnan.
In the strikes Tuesday, the Israeli military said that it had targeted and killed Khalil Bahitini, who it said had been responsible for launching rockets against Israel over the past month; Tareq Ezzedine, who was accused of directing attacks against Israelis in the occupied West Bank; and Jihad al-Ghanam, another high-ranking leader of the group. The Israeli military also said it had attacked Islamic Jihad military sites and infrastructure.
The military wing of Islamic Jihad said in a statement that the three leaders had been killed “as a result of a cowardly Zionist assassination at dawn today.”
The group said that some of the wives and children of the men had also been killed, adding that “the blood of the martyrs will increase our resolve, and we will not leave our positions and the resistance will go on, God willing.”
Schools and universities across Gaza canceled classes and exams as search and rescue crews were still digging through the rubble Tuesday morning, and the Gaza government ordered Palestinian fishing vessels not to go out to sea. The Gaza Strip operates under a severe land, air and sea blockade by Israel and Egypt.
Gaza is dominated by Hamas, a larger Islamist militant group that sometimes acts in coordination with Islamic Jihad and, at other times, acts to restrain it. The military wing of Hamas issued a statement mourning those killed in the Israeli campaign. The question of whether Hamas will join Islamic Jihad, which is backed by Iran, in any retaliatory action against Israel could determine the length and intensity of the round of fighting.
A coordinating committee of armed groups in Gaza, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, issued a statement saying it held the “criminal enemy,” meaning Israel, “fully responsible for the repercussions of this cowardly crime,” adding that “its leaders who initiated the aggression must prepare to pay the price.”
About five hours after Israel’s opening strikes, Lt. Col. Richard Hecht, a spokesman for the Israeli military, told reporters that the military had achieved its objectives and that it was largely “up to Hamas” to determine what would happen next.
Colonel Hecht said that he was aware of the reports of civilian deaths, but noted that Israel had conducted a “pinpoint” operation involving 40 aircraft.
The military’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari, asked later about the casualties, told reporters that the military tried to minimize harm to civilians but that it was hard to do when the militant targets were “operating day and night” among the general population.
Amid the strikes, the Israeli military instructed residents of Israel living within a radius of 25 miles of the border of the Palestinian coastal territory to stay close to bomb shelters for the next two days, in apparent expectation of retaliatory rocket fire.
Israel’s minister of defense, Yoav Gallant, declared a state of high alert along the border. The military issued a map of road closings in the area and shut border crossings to people and goods. Train service to the area was canceled and classes were postponed. Colonel Hecht said that the ministry had instructed the army to be ready to call up reservists.
The airstrikes started at about 2 a.m. Tuesday and initially hit Gaza City and the southern city of Rafah, along the border with Egypt. Two hours later, the military said that it was striking additional targets of Islamic Jihad, including what it described as weapons manufacturing sites and military compounds.
The operation, which the military called “Shield and Arrow,” follows a short burst of violence after the death last week of Mr. Adnan, who had been on a hunger strike for 87 days to protest his detention.
Islamic Jihad fired more than 100 rockets and mortar shells toward southern Israel in the 24 hours after the death of Mr. Adnan. One barrage fired in the middle of the day severely wounded a Chinese construction worker in the Israeli border town of Sderot.
In response, the Israeli Air Force targeted military sites in Gaza, killing a 58-year-old man, according to the health ministry in Gaza.
This year has already proved to be the deadliest in more than two decades for Palestinians and Israelis. More than 110 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank, according to Palestinian officials, with most of the deaths coming in clashes during raids by Israeli forces. At least 19 Israelis have been killed in attacks by Palestinians.
Israeli forces raided the West Bank city of Nablus on Tuesday morning, shooting and injuring 12 people, including a 14-year-old boy, and leaving 130 injured from tear gas inhalation, according to the Palestinian Red Crescent and Palestinian news media. The Israeli military said it had been there to detain a wanted individual.
Another brief flare-up a month ago, during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, took place after an Israeli police raid in Jerusalem on the Aqsa mosque compound, a revered site known to Jews as Temple Mount. That prompted Palestinian armed groups in Gaza as well as militias in Lebanon — led by Hamas, according to the Israeli military — to fire barrages of rockets at Israel.
Israel struck back at the militias in southern Lebanon, as well as at Hamas military sites in the Gaza Strip.
But far-right members of the Israeli governing coalition complained that Israel’s response had been too weak, and the ultranationalist minister of national security, Itamar Ben-Gvir, demanded that Israel take more aggressive steps, including resuming its policy of targeted assassinations of militant leaders.
Mr. Netanyahu leads a right-wing governing coalition that includes two far-right parties. But the previous government, under former prime minister Yair Lapid, a centrist, also carried out missile strikes in Gaza, in August, that killed two senior Islamic Jihad commanders and more than 40 other Palestinians, including 15 children, during three days of fierce cross-border fighting.
The Israeli military said on Tuesday that Mr. Bahitini, one of the militants killed in the latest strikes, had taken over the position of one of the militants killed in August, replacing him as the Islamic Jihad commander of the northern region of the Gaza Strip.
Reporting was contributed by Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City; Hiba Yazbek and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem; and Gabby Sobelman from Rehovot, Israel.