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Israel strikes on Gaza kill three Islamic Jihad leaders, 12 others

Smoke and flames rise above buildings after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City
— Gaza City (Palestinian Territories) (AFP)

A series of Israeli strikes in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday killed three Islamic Jihad militant group leaders and 12 other people, leaving both sides bracing for an escalation.

Islamic Jihad vowed to "avenge" the deaths, which came in a pre-dawn raid involving 40 Israeli aircraft, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned "our enemies" of a "crushing response" to any escalation.

The first Israeli strike hit targets in the crowded coastal territory for nearly two hours starting just after 2:00 am (2300 GMT Monday).

The Gaza health ministry said four children were among those killed and 20 people were wounded, some in critical condition, in the attacks that left buildings ablaze and reduced others to rubble.

A Muslim cleric leads the prayer during a group funeral in Gaza City for people killed in Israeli air raids on the Palestinian territory early on May 9, 2023

The Israeli army said it had targeted three leaders of Islamic Jihad, which it considers a terrorist group, as well as its "weapon manufacturing sites".

Army spokesman Daniel Hagari expressed regret over the death of "uninvolved" people but said they were hard to avoid as "we are working against terrorists that conduct their activities day and night among civilians."

Islamic Jihad confirmed the deaths of three senior members -- Jihad Ghannam, Khalil al-Bahtini and Tareq Ezzedine -- before their bodies were later carried through the streets in mass funeral processions.

Batteries of Israel's Iron Dome air defence system are seen in the southern city of Ashdod

A separate air strike in the late afternoon on the city of Khan Yunis in southern Gaza killed two men in a car, the health ministry said.

The Israeli military said they were members of Islamic Jihad "taking anti-tank guided missiles by car to a launch pad" ahead of a cross-border attack.

Following the morning attack, Islamic Jihad vowed to retaliate. Spokesman Daoud Shehab warned that "the resistance considers that all cities and settlements in the Zionist (Israeli) depths will be under its fire".

- 'Crushing response' -

Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh, whose Islamist movement rules Gaza, said "assassinating the leadership" would bring "greater resistance".

A damaged building is pictured after an Israeli airstrike in Gaza City on May 9, 2023

In remarks following a security cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said he had ordered the targeting of the Islamic Jihad leaders following rocket fire last week.

Speaking alongside Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, Netanyahu said the two had ordered the security establishment "to brace for any escalation scenario -- including in more than one front".

Netanyahu warned of a "crushing response" to any escalation.

Israel and Palestinian territories

The Israeli military advised residents within 40 kilometres (25 miles) of the Gaza border to stay near bomb shelters until Wednesday evening.

Moscow's diplomatic mission to the Palestinians said one of the dead was a Russian citizen, a doctor killed alongside his wife and one of his children.

Israel last week traded air strikes on Gaza for rocket fire from the enclave, an exchange sparked by the death in Israeli custody of a Palestinian hunger striker with ties to Islamic Jihad, which ended with an Egypt-brokered truce.

Islamic Jihad said Tuesday that Israel had "scorned all the initiatives of mediators" and vowed it would "avenge the leaders" killed in the latest air strikes.

The group said Ghannam was secretary of the Al-Quds Brigades military council, Bahtini the military commander in northern Gaza, and Ezzedine a military leader in the West Bank who operated from Gaza.

Israel's Iron Dome air defence system, seen in the southern city of Sderot on May 9, 2023, following early morning Israeli air strikes on Gaza

The Israeli military described Ghannam as "one of the most senior members" of Islamic Jihad who had coordinated weapons and money transfers with Hamas.

Bahtini was "responsible for the rocket fire toward Israel in the past month", the army said.

And Ezzedine, who was released from Israeli detention in a 2011 prisoner exchange, was involved in attempts to set up capabilities to fire rockets from the occupied West Bank into Israel, according to Hagari, the military spokesman.

- 'Unacceptable' killings -

Palestinian protesters hurl rocks amid clashes with Israeli security forces during a raid in Nablus in the occupied West Bank, on May 9, 2023

The White House urged de-escalation but defended Israel's right to "defend itself from indiscriminate rocket attacks launched by terrorist groups".

The US commitment to Israel remained "ironclad", a National Security Council spokesperson added.

UN Middle East peace envoy Tor Wennesland said he was "deeply alarmed" by the latest violence and described the killing of civilians as "unacceptable".

Israel told a UN Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva it was justified in carrying out the operation, which it said followed "months of attacks against Israeli citizens".

Relatives of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Khalil Bahtini mourn next to his body

Israel and Gaza militants have fought multiple wars since Hamas took control of the enclave in 2007.

The Palestinian-Israeli conflict escalated since Netanyahu's latest coalition, including extreme right and ultra-Orthodox parties, took office in December, against the backdrop of Israel's biggest domestic crisis in decades around now-shelved judicial reforms proposed by the government of Netanyahu, himself on trial for corruption he denies.

The Gaza deaths bring to 123 the number of Palestinians killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict so far this year.

Nineteen Israelis, one Ukrainian and one Italian have been killed over the same period, according to an AFP count based on official sources from the two sides.