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Gaza death toll rises as ceasefire talks under way

Rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel (Adel Hana/AP)
Rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel (Adel Hana/AP)

Israeli aircraft pummelled targets in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, raising the Palestinian death toll, and militants fired repeated rounds of rockets that reached deep into Israel, even as reports emerged that the sides were seeking a ceasefire deal.

While Egyptian officials worked on an agreement, another seven people were killed in Gaza, bringing the Palestinian death toll to 36 since the start of the Israeli offensive on Friday.

Among the dead were 11 children and four women. The Palestinian Health Ministry said more than 311 people had been wounded since Friday.

The Iran-backed Palestinian Jihad militant group has fired hundreds of rockets at Israel in response, and the risk of the cross-border fighting turning into a full-fledged war remained so long as no truce is reached.

Israel says some of the dead were killed by misfired rockets.

Israel Palestinians
Palestinians search through the rubble of a building in which Khaled Mansour was killed (Yousef Masoud/AP)

Gaza’s ruling Hamas group, which fought an 11-day war with Israel in May 2021, appeared to stay on the sidelines for now, possibly because it fears Israeli reprisals and undoing economic understandings with Israel, including Israeli work permits for thousands of Gaza residents, that bolster its control.

If it does, the ceasefire efforts could bear fruit. According to an Egyptian intelligence official, both Israel and the Palestinian militant groups gave initial approval on a ceasefire offer earlier on Sunday but it was not clear when it might take effect.

While Israel did not address the ceasefire talks, Islamic Jihad spokesman Tareq Selmi played down expectations for a deal, citing the rising Palestinian death toll.

“There is no talk of a ceasefire until now, there is no talk of mediators, the talk is on the aggressive conduct of the Zionist enemy,” he said. “The battle is going on.”

Israel launched its operation with a strike on Friday on a leader of the Islamic Jihad, and followed up on Saturday with another targeted strike on a second prominent leader.

Palestinians Israel
Smoke rises after Israeli air strikes in Gaza (Adel Hana/AP)

The second Islamic Jihad commander, Khaled Mansour, was killed in an air strike on an apartment building in the Rafah refugee camp in southern Gaza late on Saturday, which also killed two other militants and five civilians.

Mansour, the Islamic Jihad commander for southern Gaza, was in the apartment of a member of the group when the missile struck, flattening the three-story building and badly damaging nearby houses.

As a funeral for Mansour began in the Gaza Strip on Sunday afternoon, the Israeli military said it was striking suspected “Islamic Jihad rocket launch posts”.

Smoke could be seen from the strikes as thumps from their explosions rattled Gaza. Israeli air strikes and rocket fire followed for hours as sirens wailed in central Israel. As the sunset call to prayer sounded on Sunday night in Gaza, sirens wailed as far north as Tel Aviv.

Israel says some of the deaths during this round were caused by errant rocket fire, including one incident in the Jebaliya refugee camp in northern Gaza in which six Palestinians were killed on Saturday.

Israel Politics
Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid (Oded Balilty/AP)

On Sunday, a projectile hit a home in the same area of Jebaliya, killing two men. Palestinians held Israel responsible, while Israel said it was investigating whether the area was hit by an errant rocket.

Israel’s Defence Ministry said mortars fired from Gaza struck the Erez border crossing into Israel, used by thousands of Gazans a day. The mortars damaged the roof and shrapnel hit the hall’s entrance, the ministry said. The crossing has been closed amid the fighting.

The Rafah strike was the deadliest so far in the current round of fighting, which was initiated by Israel on Friday with the targeted killing of Islamic Jihad’s commander for northern Gaza.

Israel has said it took action against the militant group because of concrete threats of an imminent attack, but has not provided details.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid, who is an experienced diplomat but untested in overseeing a war, unleashed the offensive less than three months before a general election in which he is campaigning to keep the job.

In a statement on Sunday, Mr Lapid said the military would continue to strike targets in Gaza “in a pinpoint and responsible way in order to reduce to a minimum the harm to noncombatants”.

Mr Lapid said the strike that killed Mansour was “an extraordinary achievement”.

“The operation will continue as long as necessary,” Mr Lapid said.

Israel estimates its air strikes have killed about 15 militants.

The Israeli army said militants in Gaza fired about 580 rockets toward Israel. The army said its air defences had intercepted many of them, with two of those shot down being fired toward Jerusalem.

In Palestinian cities and towns in the West Bank, Israeli security forces said they detained 19 people on suspicion of belonging to the Islamic Jihad during overnight raids.