By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell
GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli air strikes pounded Gaza while the militant Islamic Jihad group fired hundreds of rockets into Israel on Saturday as a cross-border clash continued into a second day, killing at least six people, including four children.
Hamas, the Islamist group which controls the enclave, said the children were among the dead from a blast close to the Jabalya refugee camp and blamed Israel. The Israeli military denied it was responsible, saying the explosion was caused by a failed Islamic Jihad rocket launch.
It distributed a video which appeared to show a rocket being launched from Gaza at night and then veering immediately off course down into a built-up area. Reuters could not independently verify the footage.
While the Israeli strikes went on, hitting what the military said were weapons depots hidden in residential areas and destroying a number of houses, Islamic Jihad fired rocket salvoes as far as Israel’s commercial hub Tel Aviv.
At least 24 Palestinians, including six children, have been killed and 203 wounded during the two days of firing, according to the Gaza health ministry.
Palestinian militants fired more than 400 rockets at Israel – most of them intercepted, setting off air raid sirens and sending people running to bomb shelters. There were no reports of serious casualties, the Israeli ambulance service said.
Egypt said it was engaged in intensive talks to calm the situation. Further escalation would largely depend on whether Hamas would opt to join the fighting alongside the smaller Islamic Jihad group.
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 said. 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 cross-border clash, which shattered more than a year of relative calm around Gaza, began when Israel launched a surprise attack on Friday, killing a senior Islamic Jihad commander and hitting a series of what it said were military targets.
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 struck on Friday, crippling the territory’s lone power plant and reducing electricity to around eight hours per day and drawing warnings from health officials that hospitals would be severely impacted within days.
The frontier had been largely quiet since May 2021, when 11 days of fierce fighting between Israel and militants left at least 250 in Gaza and 13 in Israel dead.
The United States fully supported Israel’s right to defend itself, the U.S. State Department said on Saturday, and it urged all sides to avoid further escalation.
U.N. and European Union Mideast envoys expressed concern about the violence and the Western-backed Palestinian Authority condemned Israel’s attacks.
Gaza streets were largely deserted on Saturday afternoon. At the site where top Islamic Jihad commander Tayseer al-Jaabari was killed, rubble, glass and furniture were strewn along the street.
In Israel, border town streets were largely empty while brushfires sparked by rockets spread through nearby fields.
Islamic Jihad said it had fired a missile at Israel’s main international gateway, Ben Gurion Airport, but the rocket fell short around 20 km (12 miles) away. The Civil Aviation Authority said the airport was operating normally.
Tensions rose this week after Israeli forces arrested an Islamic Jihad commander in the occupied West Bank, drawing threats of retaliation from the group. The military said it had apprehended 19 more members of the group there on Saturday.
Israeli Defence Minister said dozens of the group’s rocket facilities in Gaza had been destroyed.
Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who faces an election in November, said the operation thwarted an imminent attack by Islamic Jihad, which is backed by Iran and designated as a terrorist organisation by the West.
(Writing by Maayan Lubell, additional reporting by Ahmed Mohamed Hassan in Cairo, Amir Cohen in Sderot, Eli Berlzon in Ashkelon and Kanishka Singh in Washington; editing by Jason Neely, Christina Fincher and Jonathan Oatis)