Israel kills top Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza
Published : Tuesday, 12 November, 2019 at 2:04 PM Count : 137
In a surprise strike before dawn Tuesday, Israeli forces killed a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in the Gaza Strip, officials said, in a rare targeted killing that was likely to prompt a fierce response.
Islamic Jihad said that the commander’s wife was also killed in the attack, which the Israeli military said was a missile strike from a fighter jet.
Right away, militants in Gaza began firing barrages of rockets toward southern Israel from the Palestinian coastal enclave. A spokesman for the Israeli military, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, put the unofficial count of rockets fired from Gaza in the dozens so far, although with no damage yet reported. Alarm sirens began ringing in Tel Aviv and surrounding neighbourhoods, reports The New York Times.
Islamic Jihad released a statement saying “our response to this crime will have no limits.” The group called the strike “a declaration of war against the Palestinian people.”
Bracing for a broader conflict, the Israeli military said in a statement that it had deployed troops and was “prepared for a wide range of offensive and defensive scenarios.”
At first light, the Israeli police announced that roads around the Gaza Strip had been closed to traffic and that train service in southern Israel had been suspended. Schools on both sides of the border were closed.
The Israeli military described the commander, Bahaa Abu el-Atta, as a “ticking bomb” who was “responsible for most of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s activity in the Gaza Strip.” The group is listed as a terrorist organisation by many countries and is supported by Iran.
Explaining the timing of the airstrike, the Israeli military said it had been stalking Abu el-Atta for about a week because of intelligence that he had been planning a specific attack on Israel.
Conricus said the attack was timed when the chance of other deaths or injuries would be lowest. He said the military was aware of and looking into reports of “other casualties,” including Abu el-Atta’s wife.
In recent weeks al-Ata had seemed increasingly like a marked man, judging from the reporting of Israeli military correspondents.
“We tried to message and to communicate to him and his superiors that we were aware of his plans, and to indicate that continued attempts to execute those plans would have consequences,” Conricus said, adding that al-Ata’s name had been mentioned frequently in the news media “not by mistake.”
Islamic Jihad described Abu el-Atta as one of the most prominent members of the movement’s military council and the group’s commander of the northern region of the Gaza Strip.
Hamas, the larger Islamic militant group that dominates in Gaza, said it mourned the commander’s death and said that the killing would not go unpunished. Islamic Jihad and Hamas are uneasy rivals in Gaza. But in times of hostility with Israel, the groups tend to make common cause.
The violence came at a time of political tension within Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for his political future and leading a caretaker government after two elections, in April and September, ended inconclusively. Netanyahu has been serving as both prime minister and defence minister for the past year.
The office of Netanyahu said in a statement Tuesday that the attack had been carried out on the recommendation of the military chief of staff and the head of the Shin Bet internal security agency, and with the approval of Netanyahu and the Israeli Cabinet.
The military said Abu el-Atta was responsible for rocket fire toward the Israeli border town of Sderot in August and early November and was preparing further attacks.
Militant groups in Gaza have clashed with Israel several times in recent years, with the last deadly conflagration taking place over several days in May. A devastating war in the summer of 2014 lasted 50 days and ended with a fragile cease-fire that has since been broken many times.
Targeted strikes against militant leaders have led to war before. In 2012, an Israeli airstrike that killed Ahmed al-Jabari, the Hamas military commander at the time, became the opening shot of an eight-day war.
In the hours after the attack, masked militants of Islamic Jihad surrounded the two-story building where Abu el-Atta and his wife were killed. It is in Shejaiya, a neighborhood east of Gaza City that saw fierce battles during the 2014 war.
Mutassem Hilis, 23, a university student and a neighbor of the Abu el-Atta family in Shejaiya, said he was woken up by the blast. Hilis said he came out of his building and saw Abu el-Atta’s body on the sidewalk. One of Abu el-Atta’s young sons lay injured on the ground, and was later driven off to hospital, he said. The body of Abu el-Atta’s wife was found in a school opposite the family house.
Days ago, Netanyahu appointed Naftali Bennett, an often provocative right-wing politician and former education minister who has long urged a more aggressive approach to Gaza, to the defense ministry post in a political move that analysts said was designed to shore up Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc of allied parties. But the military said that Netanyahu alone gave approval for the strike.
Netanyahu’s chief political rival, Benny Gantz, a former military chief of staff and leader of the centrist Blue and White party, expressed support for the military action against Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He wrote on Twitter that the political echelon and the military had “taken a correct decision tonight for the security of Israel’s citizens and the residents of the south.”
Despite Gantz’s support, questions were already being raised by some of Netanyahu’s critics about the timing of the attack. Netanyahu has been determined to remain prime minister under any possible coalition agreement that may emerge, and he faces a looming indictment in three graft cases, possibly by the end of this month.
Omer Barlev, a Labor Party legislator, wrote on Twitter that Abu el-Atta was a ”marked man.”
“In the past year and a half there have been numerous opportunities to eliminate him as well as other senior jihad and Hamas officials, but the Cabinet has refrained from doing so. Why did Netanyahu change his position now,” he asked, pointing out that Gantz had seven days left of his allotted time to form a government.
Barlev added, “The answer is unfortunately clear.”