The home of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad senior commander Baha Abu al-Ata after it was hit by an Israeli strike in Gaza City on Tuesday.Mohammed Saber/EPA, via Shutterstock
Israel Kills Senior Islamic Jihad Commander in Gaza
By Isabel Kershner, Iyad Abuheweila and David M. Halbfinger
Nov. 12, 2019
The Israeli strike prompted a wave of rocket attacks by Gaza militants after a period of relative calm.
JERUSALEM — In a surprise strike before dawn on Tuesday, Israeli forces killed a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in the Gaza Strip, setting off waves of retaliatory rocket attacks that immediately raised fears of an escalating new conflict.
Islamic Jihad said that the commander’s wife was also killed in the attack, at 4 a.m., which the Israeli military said was a missile strike from a fighter jet.
The timing of the attack, amid a protracted, high-stakes negotiation over who will lead Israel’s next government, led some critics of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to charge that it was politically motivated. Mr. Netanyahu insisted that the timing was dictated by Israel’s security chiefs, whose recommendation he had merely endorsed.
Before 6 a.m., militants in Gaza began firing barrages of rockets toward southern and central Israel from the Palestinian coastal enclave. Islamic Jihad called the Israeli strike “a declaration of war against the Palestinian people” and said, “Our response to this crime will have no limits.”
Schools and businesses were closed in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area as air-raid sirens blared and Iron Dome missiles intercepted dozens of rockets. Tens of thousands of Israelis took cover in bomb shelters.
The funeral of Mr. Abu al-Ata in Gaza City on Tuesday.Mahmud Hams/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Islamic Jihad also blamed Israel for another missile attack at dawn on Tuesday on the Damascus home of Akram al-Ajouri, describing him as a member of the group’s political bureau in Syria.
Mr. al-Ajouri was reported to have survived the attack. Sana, the official Syrian news agency, reported that a son of Mr. al-Ajouri and another civilian were killed in the attack. Mr. al-Ajouri is said to be the direct superior of Mr. Abu al-Ata. The Israeli military refused to comment on the attack in Damascus.
Israel described the Gaza commander, Baha Abu al-Ata, 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 organization by many countries, and is supported by Iran.
For months, Palestinian Islamic Jihad has played a rogue’s role in Gaza, where Hamas and Israel have repeatedly reached informal agreements to quiet tensions, only to have Islamic Jihad, which does not answer to Hamas’s authority, shatter the calm.
The killing of Mr. Abu al-Ata came after a period of relative quiet along the border, though there had been some sporadic rocket fire as recently as Nov. 1.
The Israeli military said Mr. Abu al-Ata was to blame for that and for rocket fire toward the town of Sderot in August, and he was being closely monitored over the past week because he was planning a specific new attack against Israel.
But some Israeli analysts suggested that an incident on Sept. 10, a week before the last Israeli election, may have sealed Mr. Abu al-Ata’s fate: When Mr. Netanyahu made a campaign stop in Ashdod — at a location that was announced in advance, breaking with the customary security precautions — a rocket strike on Ashdod sent the prime minister and his entourage scurrying offstage to shelter.
Amit Segal, a news anchor for Israel’s Channel 12, wrote on Twitter that there had been an “invisible laser marker” on the heads of both Mr. Abu al-Ata and his Damascus superior from that moment.
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, and Israel has sworn them off in the past. 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 May, Israel released video of an airstrike it said killed a Hamas official responsible for ferrying large amounts of Iranian cash into Gaza.
A spokesman for the Israeli military, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, said the attack on Tuesday was timed to minimize the chance of other deaths or injuries.
Some 160 rockets were fired on Israel by early afternoon, of which about 60 had been intercepted by missile defense systems, the Israeli military said. At least one man was wounded by shrapnel by early afternoon, officials said, but most Israeli casualties involved people who suffered minor injuries as they raced to shelters or who were treated for panic or fainting.
Around 11 a.m., it carried out another airstrike in Gaza against what it said were two Islamic Jihad operatives preparing to launch a rocket.
Health officials in Gaza put the casualties there at three dead before 1 p.m., suggesting one of the two had been killed, and 18 wounded.
Finally, with the rocket launches continuing, the military said it was more broadly striking Islamic Jihad targets. Its spokesman’s office announced that response on Twitter with the hashtag #JiHadEnough.
In recent weeks Mr. Abu al-Ata’s name cropped up frequently in the reporting of Israeli military correspondents — which Colonel Conricus said was no accident, and was meant as a warning.
Hamas, the larger Islamic militant group that dominates in Gaza, said that it, too, mourned Mr. Abu al-Ata’s death and that his killing would not go unpunished, but stopped short of saying it would be involved in the fighting. Islamic Jihad and Hamas are uneasy rivals in Gaza, but in times of hostility with Israel, the groups tend to make common cause.
Damage to a house in the southern Israeli town of Netivot after a rocket attack from the Gaza Strip.Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Giora Eiland, a retired Israeli general and former national security adviser, said that unlike Hamas, which has a strong and popular political component, Islamic Jihad “is purely a terrorist organization. It has no real political agenda, and more important, Islamic Jihad is fully supported by Iran and fully subordinated to Iranian instructions.”
Mr. Eiland said he believed that the Damascus attack was also carried out by Israel, and said that Islamic Jihad personnel in Syria had a direct connection with Iran and gave instructions to the group’s members in Gaza.
In the hours after the attack, masked militants of Islamic Jihad surrounded the two-story building where Mr. Abu al-Ata 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 al-Ata family in Shejaiya, said he was woken up by the blast, came out of his building and saw Mr. Abu al-Ata’s body on the sidewalk. One of Mr. Abu al-Ata’s young sons lay injured on the ground and was later driven off to the hospital, he said. The body of Mr. Abu al-Ata’s wife was found in a school opposite the family house.
Within Israel, the violence Tuesday occurred in a moment of heightened political tension, as Mr. Netanyahu fights for his political life. He is leading a caretaker government after two elections, in April and September, ended inconclusively. He also faces a looming indictment in three graft cases, possibly by the end of this month.
Rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into Israel on Tuesday.Khalil Hamra/Associated Press
Benny Gantz, a centrist former Israeli army chief of staff who defeated Mr. Netanyahu in the September election, now is seeking to form a government and possibly force Mr. Netanyahu from power for the first time in a decade.
Mr. Gantz and others in his Blue and White party expressed support for the military action against Palestinian Islamic Jihad, about which he said he had been briefed in advance. 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.”
But other Netanyahu opponents charged that the Gaza strike was aimed mainly at aiding the prime minister’s bid to stay in power. Avigdor Liberman, a right-wing rival, said he had urged the killing of Mr. Abu al-Ata more than a year ago, when he was still defense minister, but that Mr. Netanyahu had blocked it.
“Better late than never,” he said.
Omer Barlev, a Labor Party legislator, said Mr. Abu al-Ata had been in the military’s sights for a long time, adding: “Why did Netanyahu change his position now?”
And the leader of the mainly Arab Joint List, Ayman Odeh, wrote on Twitter: “A cynical man who lost two consecutive elections will leave only scorched earth in a desperate attempt to remain in office.”
Tacitly acknowledging the need to address those allegations, Mr. Netanyahu appeared publicly alongside Israel’s military and internal-security chiefs. He said they had both recommended killing Mr. Abu al-Ata, and that his Cabinet had authorized it 10 days ago.
“We tried to prevent his activity in various ways, but without success,” said Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, the army chief of staff, explaining his recommendation to attack Mr. Abu al-Ata.
In rare public remarks, the chief of the Israel Security Agency, Nadav Argaman, said Israel had been tracking Mr. Abu al-Ata’s movements for days as he moved from safe house to safe house. “He acted like a wanted man,” Mr. Argaman said.
Still, the possibility of a unity government in which Mr. Gantz would join forces with Mr. Netanyahu, and perhaps even allow Mr. Netanyahu to remain prime minister for a limited period, may just have increased.
Avi Benayahu, a former army spokesman, wrote on Twitter that Tuesday’s fighting amounted to “concentrated baking powder for a national unity government.”
“Add in the early tip-off Gantz received about the action and the unreserved support for the operation from Blue and White leaders,” he added, “and you have a perfectly baked cake ready for eating.”
Isabel Kershner and David M. Halbfinger reported from Jerusalem, and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City. Ibrahim El-Mughraby contributed reporting from Gaza City.
Isabel Kershner, a correspondent in Jerusalem, has been reporting on Israeli and Palestinian politics since 1990. She is the author of “Barrier: The Seam of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.” @IKershner • Facebook
David M. Halbfinger is the Jerusalem bureau chief, covering Israel, the occupied Palestinian territories and the Middle East. @halbfinger