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Israel strike on Islamic Jihad chief sparks rocket fire from Gaza

Amir Cohen, REUTERS | Smoke rises in the Israeli city of Ashkelon following a rocket attack over the border between Israel and Gaza, November 12, 2019.

Israel killed a top commander from the Iranian-backed Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad on Tuesday in the Gaza Strip, drawing rocket salvoes that reached as far as Tel Aviv in the worst cross-border fighting in months. 

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The rare targeted strike which killed Islamic Jihad’s Baha Abu el-Atta came as Syrian state media said a separate missile attack had hit the home of an Islamic Jihad official in Damascus, killing two people including one of his sons.

As the sound of Palestinian rockets and Israeli air strikes echoed throughout Gaza and Israeli towns across the border, Islamic Jihad leader Khaled el-Batsh spoke at the midday Gaza funeral of Atta.

“Israel executed two coordinated attacks, in Syria and in Gaza, in a declaration of war,” he said. Mourners fired guns into the air, chanting “revenge!”

The targeted killing of the top Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza sparked Palestinian retaliatory fire, according to the Israeli army, with rockets striking the south of Israel. Air raid sirens wailed throughout southern and central Israel as militants responded with heavy rocket fire.


Atta’s killing in his Gaza home is also likely to pose a new challenge for Gaza's ruling Hamas faction, which has mostly tried to maintain a truce with Israel since a 2014 war. Islamic Jihad often carries out attacks independent of Hamas.

‘Ticking time bomb’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held an emergency security cabinet meeting following the attack. Speaking alongside Israel’s military chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi after the meeting, Netanyahu said Atta was an "arch-terrorist” and the “main generator of terrorism from the Gaza Strip”.

"He was in the midst of plotting additional attacks these very days," Netanyahu said. "He was a ticking bomb."

The attack in Damascus targeted the home of another leading Palestinian militant, killing his son and at least one more person. Syrian state media said Israel was responsible for the Damascus attack.

Two rockets targeted the home of a senior figure of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, Akram Ajouri, “killing his son Muadh and another person”, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

The attack in the Mezzah neighbourhood in western Damascus was conducted by “the Zionist criminal enemy”, said SANA, referring to Israel. There was no immediate Israeli comment on the attack in the Syrian capital.
Israel did not comment on the separate strike which Damascus accused it of carrying out in Syria.

The air strikes come at a politically tenuous time for Israel, as Netanyahu leads a caretaker government after two inconclusive elections. His chief challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, is currently trying to build a coalition government of his own. Gantz said the airstrike was "the right decision".

Tuesday’s strike in Gaza came days after the appointment of hard-line politician Naftali Bennett as Israel's new defence minister. Bennett has long advocated tougher action against Palestinian militants.

But speaking to reporters, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said the operation had been planned long ago.

"We essentially over the last week have been waiting for the opportune moment to conduct this surgical strike," the spokesman said.

Vulnerable Iran increases regional dangers

Israel routinely says it holds hold Hamas responsible for any fire emanating from the enclave, but it acknowledges that the vast majority of attacks are carried out by the smaller and more radical Islamic Jihad group.

Since Hamas took over Gaza by force in 2007 from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, Israel and Gaza militants have fought three wars, with the third in 2014 lasting for 50 days. It was the deadliest and most destructive.

Short-but-frequent spasms of violence have occurred, the latest earlier this month when about 10 projectiles were fired at Israel, who accused Abu el-Atta of being behind them.

Since the 2014 war, Israel has mostly refrained from targeted assassinations of senior Gaza militants. But in May, Israeli airplanes killed a Hamas commander and financial broker in a car travelling in Gaza City during a three-day exchange of fire.

For Iran, Tuesday's targeted attacks on leaders of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad come at a vulnerable moment as Tehran struggles under crippling US sanctions.

Iran's regional influence is also being challenged by unprecedented, economically driven mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon – two countries where Tehran wields major influence.

The protests are creating unrest that Tehran fears would spark a backlash against Iran-backed proxy militias in those countries and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused the US and its regional allies of fomenting the Iraq and Lebanon unrest.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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