Israel killed 13 Palestinians, including three senior commanders of the Islamic Jihad militant group, after they and their families were targeted in airstrikes early on Tuesday, said the Israeli military.
Six women and four children were among the dead, according to the Al-Shifa Medical Complex director Muhammad Abu Salmiya.
Israel is now bracing for retaliation from militant groups in Gaza, with communities within 40km of Gaza urged to stay close to designated bomb shelters and schools, beaches and highways closed in southern Israel.
Israel’s foreign minister Eli Cohen, who is in Delhi on a diplomatic visit, said he would be cutting the trip short to return to Israel after receiving a “security update” on the events back home.
Airstrikes on Gaza continued throughout the early hours of Tuesday targeting “militant training sites”, Israel said.
The earlier strikes hit the top floor of an apartment building in Gaza City and a house in the southern town of Rafah.
The military said that the three commanders killed had been responsible for recent rocket fire toward Israel.
It identified them as Khalil Bahtini, the Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza Strip; Tareq Izzeldeen, the group’s intermediary between its Gaza and West Bank members; and Jehad Ghanam, the secretary of the Islamic Jihad’s military council.
The Iran-backed Islamic Jihad, which is smaller than Gaza’s ruling Hamas group, confirmed the three were among the dead. Their funerals have been planned for later in the day.
The health ministry in Gaza said 20 people were injured in the strikes and warned that the number of deaths could rise.
“Ambulance crews are still continuing to evacuate victims from the areas targeted by the occupation,” the Ministry of Health said, referring to Israel.
While the Israel Defence Force (IDF) maintained that the pre-dawn airstrikes were a “response to incessant aggression on the part of the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization,” it conceded being “aware of some collateral damage”.
“If there were some tragic deaths, we’ll look into it and get back to you,” IDF spokesman Lt Col Richard Hecht was quoted as saying by CNN, as he called the three militants “kingpin terrorists”.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh warned that Israel will “pay the price” for the killings. “Assassinating the leaders with a treacherous operation will not bring security to the occupier, but rather more resistance,” he said in a statement.
Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qassem also issued a statement saying: “We do not accept that this is an attack specifically directed at the Islamic Jihad. From Hamas’ point of view, this is an attack against the Palestinian people, and therefore there will be a proportionate response whose details will be determined by the joint operations room of all factions.
All Palestinian militant factions in Gaza, “will decide the nature and depth of the response, who will participate in the first wave, and who will participate in the second or third wave, if there will be any. Israel bears full responsibility for all the consequences of this aggression,” he was quoted as saying by Haaretz.
The airstrikes come at a time of already heightened tensions between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip.
This is linked, in part, to increasing violence in the occupied West Bank, where Israel has been conducting near-daily raids for months to detain Palestinians suspected in planning or carrying out attacks on Israelis.
Last week, Gaza militants fired several salvos of rockets toward southern Israel, and the Israeli military responded with airstrikes following the death of a hunger-striking senior member of the Islamic Jihad in Israeli custody. The exchange of fire ended with a fragile ceasefire mediated by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations.