Israel Bombarded With Gaza Rockets After Killing Islamic Jihad Commander

Schools, offices closed as some 200 rockets fired from Gaza in reprisal for killing of Baha Abu al-Ata and his wife ■ Another eight Gazans killed in IDF strikes ■ No Israelis killed

Israeli firefighters work to extinguish a vehicle as it burns after a factory caught on fire in Sderot, November 12, 2019.
REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Some 200 rockets were launched from Gaza at Israel since Tuesday morning, causing no deaths or serious injuries, following the IDF and Shin Bet’s assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, commander of Islamic Jihad in Gaza. Ata, said to have been behind many recent rocket attacks on Israel, was killed at his home along with his wife. 

Eight Gazans were killed in subsequent Israeli airstrikes Tuesday, said Gaza’s Health Ministry. 

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Some 46 Israelis were treated for light injuries, Magen David Adom said. The Iron Dome defense system intercepted 90 percent of the day’s rockets, which were fired as far north as Tel Aviv, causing schools in the south and much of the center to be closed, keeping 1 million students at home.

In a morning press conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel “isn’t interested in an escalation, but we will do everything it takes to defend ourselves, and that may take time.” 

Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz, now trying to piece together a coalition government, backed the assassination. “The political echelon and the IDF made the right decision tonight for the safety of the citizens of Israel and the people of the South,” the former chief of staff said on Twitter. “Kahol Lavan will back up any activity that is right for Israel’s security and put the safety of the people above politics.”

Also overnight, a failed attempt was made in Damascus to assassinate Akram Al-Ajouri, another Islamic Jihad top officer. Ajouri’s son was killed in the attack and 10 other people were wounded, according to reports. Islamic Jihad blamed the attack on “the Zionist criminal enemy,” but there was no word about the attack from Israeli authorities.

Before 9 P.M., Abu Hamza, spokesperson for Islamic Jihad’s military wing, said that the “coming hours will mark victory for the Palestinian people. Israel began this campaign, but it will be notified when it ends. Israel is the one bearing responsibility for the stupid decision to assassin one of the most senior commanders of the resistance.”

As of Tuesday night, Israel hadn’t attacked any Hamas targets, in an effort to prevent that organization from joining the fight.

Defense officials said any attack that caused mass casualties or significant damage to Hamas infrastructure would lead Hamas to enter the fray, but it has no interest in doing so. If it did, that would significantly change the nature of the fighting, since Hamas’ military capabilities are far greater than Islamic Jihad’s.

International players, led by Egypt, were trying to restore calm on Tuesday night, primarily by pressuring Hamas to restrain Islamic Jihad, which it so far hasn’t done. Israel is letting Hamas know that if it doesn’t join the fighting and helps restore calm, efforts on an agreement that would improve Gaza’s economy and provide it with humanitarian aid will continue.

Israeli intelligence assessments say Hamas sees such a deal as very important to stabilizing its power in Gaza. But at the same time, Hamas has been losing power to more militant organizations like Islamic Jihad, which makes it harder for it to restrain them.

Consequently, one of Israel’s goals in attacking Islamic Jihad targets is to weaken that organization and thereby bolster Hamas’ power, which it thinks would improve the chances of restoring calm.

In the afternoon a house near the Israeli-Gaza border took a direct hit from a rocket. No injuries were reported, and the house suffered slight damage.

A fire raged at a factory in Sderot following a direct hit from a rocket. 

Between 5:00 A.M. and 10:30 A.M., 29 people received medical help, Magen David Adom reported. One, a 35-year-old man, was treated for injuries caused by a rocket, 15 for injuries suffered while seeking shelter, and 13 for psychological trauma.

Rockets also fell in Ashdod. No casualties were reported, although some vehicles were damaged, according to police reports.

Speaking at a press conference alongside IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Shin Bet security agency head Nadav Argaman, Netanyahu called the Islamic Jihad commander a “ticking bomb.” 

The prime minister said the security cabinet had approved the operation to kill Ata 10 days ago, adding that the assassination took place overnight after the defense establishment identified “a unique window of opportunity to carry out this action with maximum chances of success and minimum chances of hurting uninvolved [civilians].” 

“We proved that it’s possible to hurt murderers while causing minimum damage to those who are innocent. Anyone who thinks they can hurt our civilians and remain unscathed is mistaken,” Netanyahu added. 

Kochavi, meanwhile, said that Ata was “de-facto the senior commander of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, he is the man in charge of the majority of the terror attacks that emanated from the Strip over the past year.” Kochavi added that Israel did not want to pursue an escalation. 

Earlier in the day, several lawmakers lashed out at Netanyahu for approving the operation to kill Ata, saying the prime minister’s motivation was to tamper with Gantz’s efforts to form a coalition and pressure him into joining one led by the Likud leader.

Labor-Gesher lawmaker Omer Bar-Lev accused Netanyahu of making the decision based on political reasons. “In the last year and a half, there were a large number of opportunities to eliminate [Ata], as well as other senior Jihad and Hamas leaders, but the security cabinet has avoided doing so,” tweeted Bar-Lev. “Why has Netanyahu changed his position now, just seven days before the end of MK [Benny] Gantz’s mandate to form a government? Regrettably, the answer is clear.”

However, the chairman of his party, Amir Peretz, expressed reservations over Bar-Lev’s criticism. “There is no reason for us to enter into a controversy today,” he said.

The chairman of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, joined Bar-Lev’s critique of the premier. Odeh wrote that Netanyahu is a “cynical person who lost two elections in a row, and will leave only scorched earth in a desperate attempt to remain in his job. For a decade he woke up every morning with the goal of entrenching the occupation and avoiding the chance of peace – and that is what he did today.”

President Reuven Rivlin, meanwhile, called for all Israeli lawmakers to exercise restraint in their statements. “This is not the time for political disputes and they do not add any dignity to anyone involved in them – this is the time to put an end to such statements immediately,” he said.

Kahol Lavan co-leader Yair Lapid wrote that he “congratulates the IDF and security forces for their precise and successful operation. Deterrence can be returned only with strength.” MK Gabi Ashkenazi, who chairs the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that “Israel sent an important message tonight – every terrorist is under the long arm [of Israel] and his life is in anger.”