Israeli jets pounded the Gaza Strip for a second day on Saturday, killing at least 24 people, including six Palestinian children.
Hamas, the group that governs the Palestinian enclave, said the children were among the dead from a blast close to the Jabalya refugee camp and blamed Israel.
The Israeli military, however, denied it was responsible, saying the explosion was caused by a failed rocket launched by the Palestinian armed group, Islamic Jihad.
The health ministry in Gaza said at least 203 people have also been wounded during the two days of fighting.
The clashes, which shattered more than a year of relative calm around Gaza, began on Friday with Israel’s targeted killing of a senior commander of Islamic Jihad. Israeli missiles have since destroyed homes, apartment buildings and hit a refugee camp, and the military has warned that its campaign against Islamic Jihad could last a week.
Among those killed in the Israeli raids was Um Walid, a 73-year-old who was preparing for her son’s wedding. She died in an attack on a car in the Beit Hanoun refugee camp.
Palestinian fighters have responded to the Israeli attacks by launching more than 400 rockets at Israel, but most of them were intercepted.
There have been no reports of serious casualties, according to the Israeli ambulance service.
Around 2.3 million Palestinians are packed into the narrow coastal Gaza Strip, with Israel and Egypt tightly restricting movement of people and goods in and out of the enclave and imposing a naval blockade, citing security concerns.
Israel stopped the planned transport of fuel into Gaza shortly before it launched its attacks on Friday, crippling the territory’s lone power plant and reducing electricity to around four hours per day and drawing warnings from health officials that hospitals would be severely impacted within days.
“[The Israelis] are attacking civilians, they are attacking premises, residential areas. Nobody knows what will happen in the coming hours,” said Dr Medhat Abbas, director at the Gaza Ministry of Health.
“This is an appeal to extend a helping hand to the ministry of health in Gaza Strip right now. There’s a shortage of electricity. It’s been declared now that it will only be four hours a day. This means we will rely in the hospitals on generators. Generators consume half a million litres every month. We do not have this fuel right now.”
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said Cairo is talking “around the clock” with both sides to ease the violence.
An Egyptian intelligence delegation headed by Major General Ahmed Abdelkhaliq arrived in Israel on Saturday and would be travelling to Gaza for mediation talks, two Egyptian security sources told the Reuters news agency. They were hoping to secure a day’s ceasefire in order to carry out the talks, the sources added.
“Intensive efforts have been made this evening and the movement listened to the mediators, but these efforts haven’t reached an agreement yet,” an Islamic Jihad official told Reuters late on Saturday.
The Israel-Gaza frontier had been largely quiet since May 2021, when 11 days of fierce fighting between Israel and Palestinian fighters left at least 250 in the enclave and 13 in Israel dead.
Tensions rose this week after Israeli forces arrested Bassam al-Saadi, an Islamic Jihad commander in the occupied West Bank. Al-Saadi was detained during an Israeli raid in the city of Jenin, during which a teenager was killed.
Israel then sealed roads around the Gaza Strip and on Friday killed Taysir al-Jabari, a commander of Islamic Jihad’s military wing. Several others, including a five-year-old girl and a 23-year-old woman were killed in the attack.
The Israeli military meanwhile said it had arrested 19 more members of Islamic Jihad in the occupied West Bank on Saturday.
“The last war caused widespread devastation here in the Gaza Strip. A year later, there has been almost no reconstruction,” said Al Jazeera’s Youmna ElSayed, reporting from Gaza. “This isolated coastal territory is impoverished, its people are barely recovering. And many fear another round of escalation.”
Further escalation of the violence would largely depend on whether the governing Hamas group would opt to join the fighting alongside the smaller Islamic Jihad.
Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum has said that “the Israeli enemy, which started the escalation against Gaza and committed a new crime, must pay the price and bear full responsibility for it”.
The violence poses an early test for Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who assumed the role of caretaker leader ahead of elections in November, when he hopes to keep the position.
Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, has experience in diplomacy having served as foreign minister in the outgoing government, but has thin security credentials.
A conflict with Gaza could burnish his standing and give him a boost as he faces off against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who led the country during three of its four wars with Hamas.
The United States fully supported Israel’s right to defend itself, the US State Department said on Saturday, and it urged all sides to avoid further escalation.
Iran, which backs Islamic Jihad, said Israel will “pay a heavy price” for the latest attacks, with the head of the country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards issuing a statement saying Palestinians are not alone.
United Nations and European Union Middle East envoys have meanwhile expressed concern about the violence and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority has condemned Israel’s attacks.