© Reuters. Trails of smoke are seen as rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel during the sunrise, in Gaza City February 23, 2023. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem
By Nidal al-Mughrabi
GAZA (Reuters) – Gaza militants fired rockets and Israel carried out air strikes in a cross-border exchange on Thursday, after 11 Palestinians were killed a day earlier during an Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank, renewing concerns of a broader escalation.
Mediation efforts were under way by Egypt and the United Nations to calm the situation, officials said, as U.N. Middle East envoy Tor Wennesland arrived in Gaza to meet Hamas leaders.
Israel’s military said six rockets had been fired from Gaza overnight, setting off air raid sirens in southern Israeli communities. Five rockets were intercepted by missile defences and the other fell in an open area. No injuries were reported.
The Palestinian militant faction Islamic Jihad stopped short of claiming it fired the rockets but said it had the right to defend against Israeli aggression.
Israeli fighter jets later struck a weapons manufacturing site belonging to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls Gaza, the Israeli military said. No injuries were reported.
The cross-border attacks followed an Israeli operation in the West Bank city of Nablus on Wednesday. Israeli troops had killed 11 Palestinians, including six gunmen and five civilians, and wounded more than 100 people, Palestinian sources said.
U.N. Middle East envoy Wennesland arrived in Gaza to meet Hamas leaders in an effort to calm the situation, a diplomatic source told Reuters.
“I am continuing my engagement with all concerned parties to de-escalate the situation. I urge all sides to refrain from steps that could further enflame an already volatile situation,” Wennesland said in a statement before the visit.
A Palestinian official said leaders from Hamas and the Islamic Jihad warned mediators, including Egypt, the situation could slide into an “open confrontation” if there was no change.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment.
In a separate statement it said that agreements had been reached with Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who heads the pro-settler Religious Zionism party, that would grant him some civil powers in the West Bank, though it gave no details.
In the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza Palestinian groups went on strike as schools, universities and banks in all those places kept doors closed.
Abdel-Latif Abdu, a vegetable seller in Gaza, kept his shop closed in support of residents of Nablus and the rest of the West Bank.
“They (Israel) can’t divide us. We are all one people and can’t be divided,” he told Reuters.
Nablus and nearby Jenin have been a focus of raids that Israel has intensified over the past year following a spate of lethal Palestinian street attacks in its cities.
Sixty-two Palestinians, including gunmen and civilians, were killed in 2023, the Palestinian health ministry said. Ten Israelis and a Ukrainian tourist died in Palestinian attacks in the same period, according to Israel’s foreign ministry.