JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) - Israeli air strikes martyred 14 Palestinians in Gaza on Wednesday, medical officials said, raising the Palestinian death toll to 24 over a two-day escalation in violence since Israel launched strikes to kill an Islamic Jihad commander.
From early morning Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli military struck from the air, resuming after an overnight lull. There were reports of injuries but no deaths inside Israel, where the military said it shot many of the rockets down with air defences.
The bodies of six people were brought to Gaza’s Shifa hospital in taxis and ambulances early Wednesday, as relatives wept and screamed. Medics and witnesses said they were civilians who lived in densely populated neighbourhoods.
In the north of Gaza City, family members said Rafat Ayyad and his two sons Islam, 25, and Ameer, aged 9, were killed by Israeli fire while rushing to hospital to visit another son who had earlier been injured in a separate attack.
“I got wounded and I called my father. He was coming to see me in hospital and two of my brothers were with him on the motorcycle when they were hit by Israel,” Loay Ayyad, 18, told Reuters during the funeral.
The fighting, the worst in months, erupted on Tuesday after Israel killed Baha Abu Al-Atta, a senior commander of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad militant group, accusing him of masterminding and planning attacks against Israel.
In response to the killing of Atta and his wife, Islamic Jihad fired about 200 rockets into Israel on Tuesday, resuming on Wednesday morning.
“We will not allow the enemy to return to the policy of cowardly assassination under any circumstances,” said a statement by the ‘Joint Command’ of Palestinian armed factions.
The joint command includes Hamas, the much larger Islamist group that controls Gaza. But while Hamas appeared to be giving the green light for Islamic Jihad to continue, the larger group did not appear to be launching rockets itself, a decision that could reduce the likelihood of the violence escalating further.
Hamas and Israel have managed to defuse previous confrontations and to avoid a full-scale conflict for the past five years, following three wars from 2008-2014. In the past Israel has held Hamas responsible for rockets fired by any group in Gaza, but this time it appeared to be avoiding Hamas targets.
UN Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov said he was “very concerned about the ongoing and serious escalation between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel, following the targeted killing of one of the group’s leaders inside Gaza yesterday. “The indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars against population centres is absolutely unacceptable and must stop immediately,” he said.