TEL AVIV — Israeli fighter jets pounded targets in Gaza as Palestinian militants launched rocket attacks for the second day in a row on Saturday, bringing more than a year of relative calm along the border to an explosive end.
The Israel Defense Forces, or IDF, said in a statement on Saturday that the airstrikes had killed two operatives from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group “who were about to fire mortars from the Gaza Strip toward Israeli territory.”
The statement added that the IDF “was continuing to strike terrorist targets in the Gaza Strip,” including a “military training complex and a weapons warehouse.”
Local media later broadcast images of huge clouds of smoke and debris appearing in the air as explosions rocked Gaza City.
In a separate statement, the IDF said that along with other Israeli security forces, it had apprehended 20 suspects on Saturday, 19 of whom it described as “Islamic Jihad terrorist operatives.”
Having earlier claimed responsibility overnight for firing more than 100 rockets at Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities, the Al-Quds Brigades, the armed wing of the Islamic Jihad group, said in a statement that it could “confirm the continuation of the fighting.”
Most of the missiles were intercepted and there were no reports of serious casualties, according to the Israeli ambulance service.
In a separate statement, Daoud Shehab, a spokesperson for Islamic Jihad, said the “current battle will not end in a day or two, and it will continue to deplete the occupation entity.” He also said there were no talks between the two sides at present.
The latest round of violence between Israel and Palestinian militants was sparked by the capture this week of senior Islamic Jihad commander Bassam al-Saadi in the West Bank.
Fighting began Friday as Israel warned residents in phone calls ahead of its fighter jets dropping two bombs on the house of an Islamic Jihad member, flattening the two-story structure in west Gaza City and badly damaging surrounding homes.
The IDF said it had targeted Taiseer al-Jabari, the senior commanding officer of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s northern Gaza division. The Palestinian Health Ministry later confirmed that Jabari was among the dead.
In a separate statement Saturday, the ministry said that 14 Palestinians, including one child, had died, and at least 110 people had been wounded since the violence began.
Islamic Jihad is an Iran-backed group that is smaller than Hamas, which rules Gaza, but it shares many of its key demands and ideologies, including a refusal to acknowledge the existence of the state of Israel.
So far, Hamas has appeared to stay on the sidelines of the conflict, but Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesperson for the group, said in a statement Friday that Israel “started the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, and must pay the price and bear full responsibility for it.”
Israel and Hamas have fought four wars and several smaller battles over the past 15 years, triggering violence that has disproportionately affected the territory’s 2 million Palestinian residents, who often can’t shelter from Israeli strikes.
Barhoum’s comments came after Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said his country had launched the attacks based on “concrete threats.
“This government has a zero-tolerance policy for any attempted attacks — of any kind — from Gaza toward Israeli territory,” Lapid said. “Israel will not sit idly by when there are those who are trying to harm its civilians.”
“Israel isn’t interested in a broader conflict in Gaza but will not shy away from one either.” he added.
The violence poses an early test for Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker prime minister in June after the eight-party coalition of his predecessor, Naftali Bennett, collapsed.
Citing a security threat, Israel has also sealed the roads around the Gaza Strip and blockaded the Nusseirat power plant, which provides electricity to the 2.3 million people who live in the coastal enclave.
It has also imposed special security measures in its southern territories near Gaza and is preparing to call up 25,000 military personnel, according to Defense Minister Benny Gantz.
Israel and Egypt have maintained a tight blockade over the Gaza Strip since 2007. Israel says the closure is needed to prevent Hamas from building up its military capabilities.
Critics, including the United Nations, say the policy amounts to collective punishment of an entire population, and deprives Palestinian civilians living in the area of freedom of movement.
Paul Goldman reported from Tel Aviv and Leila Sackur from London.
Paul Goldman is a Tel Aviv-based producer and video editor for NBC News.
Associated Press and Reuters contributed.
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