Islamic Jihad Members Killed in Israeli Strike Near Damascus After Gaza Skirmish

Gaza group confirms two dead, Syrian watchdog says four pro-Iranian militiamen also killed ■ Palestinians report four wounded in Gaza ■ 26 rockets fired from the Strip ■ Ashkelon opens public shelters, cancels schools, public events

Iron Dome anti-missile system fires interception missiles as rockets are launched from Gaza towards Israel, as seen from the city of Ashkelon, Israel, February 23, 2020
AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Islamic Jihad confirmed early Monday morning that two operatives were killed in Israeli airstrikes on targets belonging to the organization in Syria.

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday that a total of six were killed in the strike, with the other four being members of a pro-Iranian militia. One is said to be a Syrian national, while the identity of the others remains unknown at this time.

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Israel Defense Forces struck targets in the Gaza Strip and Syria on Sunday night after Islamic Jihad fired a barrage of more than 20 rockets into southern Israel in response to the death of one of its operatives, who was shot by Israeli forces after they said he was laying an explosive charge near the Gaza border fence.

"Israeli fighter jets struck Islamic Jihad terror targets south of Damascus, as well as across the Gaza Strip," the IDF Spokesperson's Unit said in a statement, adding that a fighter jet struck an Islamic Jihad cell in Gaza while it was preparing to fire rockets at Israel.

Gaza's Health Ministry said four Palestinians were wounded in the enclave, without providing further details.

A ball of fire is seen following an Israel airstrike at Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip early on February 23, 2020
AFP

Abu Hamza, spokesman for Islamic Jihad's military wing, promised retaliation. "The Israeli aggression in Damascus and killing two of our fighters is an event that cannot be ignored and will not pass quietly," he said in a statement.

The Syrian military said Israeli warplanes had fired from outside Syrian airspace at targets around Damascus, according to official news agency SANA. 

"Once the missiles were discovered, they were dealt with with high efficiency, deviating from their path. The majority were destroyed before reaching their targets," the source said.   

According to the Israeli army, the targets it hit near Damascus were facilities used by Islamic Jihad to develop weapons, produce rocket fuel and train fighters. The targets hit in Gaza included the Khan Yunis headquarters of Islamic Jihad and strategic storage sites in the neighboring city of Rafah, on the Egyptian border. 

In a statement, Islamic Jihad said the operatives' "deaths will be avenged and that the attack in Damascus is a proof of the Israeli failure to deal with Islamic Jihad fighters in the battlefield."  The organization, however, denied that senior official Akram Ajuri's had been killed, as was circulated on social media earlier.    

Following these recent developments, main roads near the Gaza border fence will be blocked, the Israeli army said Monday early morning.

Fragment of an intercepted rocket found in the kibbutz of Nir Am.
Kibbutz Nir-Am

In addition, the Home Front Command announced the closure of schools in southern Israel, with some 55,000 students staying at home.

Earlier on Sunday, alert sirens sounded in two waves, with a two-hour break in between, in several areas of southern Israel, including the cities of Sderot and Ashkelon.

In all, 26 rockets were fired at Israeli territory from Gaza, with 16 being intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and the rest falling in open terrain, according to the IDF.

Two people were brought to Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon with mild injuries – a 64-year-old woman who tripped and hit her head on the way to a shelter, and a 20-year-old woman who is being treated for shock.

Most of the material damage incurred in Israel was from shrapnel and debris from intercepted rockets. Fragments were found in the cities of Ashkelon and Sderot, and communities in the Hof Ashkelon and Sdot Negev Regional Councils, police said. At least one building and one vehicle suffered some damage, according to initial reports.

Islamic Jihad praised "the resistance forces' responses to the crimes Israel committed against a fighter from the organization this morning," referring to an incident earlier Sunday where Israel killed an Islamic Jihad fighter who was attempting to lay an explosive charge near the border fence.

Men trying to collect a body as a bulldozer approaches them, along the Gaza-Israel border, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 23, 2020
AFP

A video taken by bystanders of an Israeli bulldozer being used to drag the body back to Israel sparked outrage in Gaza and unease in Israel. Islamic Jihad had said in response the incident "constitutes blatant aggression, and Israel must bear responsibility for this aggression."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has scheduled a security status assessment with the defense minister, military chief of staff, the head of the Shin Bet security service, the head of the National Security Council, and other defense officials in Tel Aviv. 

The city of Ashkelon said the mayor had ordered the opening of public shelters and ordered that all activities and events at community centers be canceled. The city also announced that schools would be canceled on Monday. 

A police spokesman said the number of security forces in southern Israel would be boosted in the wake of the rocket fire. Police also said they had held a special situation assessment that included the chief of the police's Southern Division. 

Kahol Lavan Chairman Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's main rival in the March 2 election, reacted to the rocket fire by slamming the prime minister. "Israel's government is Hamas' hostage," he said. "Haniyeh is extorting Netanyahu and he's paying it with suitcases full of dollars."