Israeli jets strike Gaza as tensions mount after West Bank clashes

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The Palestinian Islamic Jihad movement in Gaza claimed responsibility on Friday for rockets fired on Israel overnight amid international efforts to defuse tensions following one of the deadliest raids in the occupied West Bank in years.

Israeli jets struck Gaza on Friday in retaliation for the rockets, which had set off alarms in Israeli communities near the border with the blockaded southern coastal strip that is controlled by Hamas.

There were no reports of casualties on either side and there was no immediate sign of escalation into a more serious conflict of the kind seen repeatedly over recent years with Palestinian groups firing hundreds of rockets and Israel pounding Gaza.

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The overnight exchange followed an Israeli raid on a refugee camp in the West Bank on Thursday that killed at least nine Palestinians, bringing the Palestinian death toll so far in 2023 to at least 30.

The deaths, which included militant gunmen as well as at least two civilians, left the highest single-day death toll in the West Bank in years, with another man killed in a separate incident in al-Ramm outside Jerusalem.

The raid, the latest in a near-daily series of clashes in the West Bank over the past year, came days before US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to visit Israel and the West Bank. Washington called for calm from both sides.

In Gaza, thousands of Islamic Jihad supporters rallied following Friday prayers, calling for the fight against Israel to be stepped up in the wake of the Jenin raid.

“We didn’t sleep the whole night, bombing and missiles,”said 50 year-old Abdallah al-Husary. “There is worry and there is fear, any minute a war can happen. With any clash in the West Bank, there can be war along the borders in Gaza.”

In the Jabalya refugee camp, one of the movement’s leaders, Khaled al-Batsh claimed responsibility for the rocket strikes and said Israel could not isolate Gaza from the West Bank.

“The Jerusalem Brigades’s rocket unit responded,” he said.

Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed movement dedicated to overthrowing Israel, is active in both flashpoint West Bank centers like Nablus and Jenin as well Gaza, where it exists alongside the larger and more powerful Hamas group.

In August, Israeli jets bombed targets in Gaza associated with the group during a weekend confrontation that saw hundreds of Islamic Jihad rockets launched against Israel, most of which were intercepted by air defense systems.

There was a fiercer conflict in Gaza in May 2021.

The Israeli Defense Force said Friday’s airstrikes in Gaza targeted an underground rocket manufacturing site and a military base used by Hamas.

‘Deeply concerned’

The months of violence in the West Bank, which surged after a spate of lethal attacks in Israel last year, have drawn fears the already unpredictable conflict could spiral out of control, triggering a broader confrontation between Palestinians and Israel.

The latest season of violence began under the previous coalition government and has continued following the election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing administration which includes ultra-nationalist parties that want to expand settlements in the West Bank.

In the wake of Thursday’s raid, the Palestinian Authority, which has limited governing powers in the West Bank, said it was suspending a security cooperation arrangement with Israel.

In Jenin refugee camp, a densely packed mass of buildings and alleyways that has been a center of militant activity and the target of repeated Israeli raids, residents said Thursday’s operation had penetrated unusually deeply into the camp.

A two-story building at the center of the fighting was heavily damaged and nearby houses were tainted black from smoke.

In another area around the camp's community center, cars had been crushed by Israeli bulldozers used in the operation.

The US State Department issued a statement on Thursday saying it was “deeply concerned” with the violence in the West Bank and urged both sides to de-escalate the conflict.

The United Nations, Egypt and Qatar have also urged calm, Palestinian officials said.

Palestinian officials said CIA director William Burns, who was visiting Israel and the West Bank on a trip arranged before the latest violence, would meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday. No comment was immediately available from US officials in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who returned to power this year at the head of one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history, said Israel was not looking to escalate the situation, although he ordered security forces to be on alert.

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