Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday in light of the flare-up with Gaza that Israel "isn't interested in an escalation,
but we will do everything it takes to defend ourselves, and that may take time."
Speaking at a press conference alongside Israeli army Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and Shin Bet security agency head Nadav Argaman, Netanyahu called the Islamic Jihad commander Israel assassinated early Tuesday morning a "ticking bomb."
The premier said that the defense cabinet had approved the operation to kill Baha Abu al-Ata 10 days ago, and added that the mission was carried out 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," the prime minister added.
Shin Bet chief Argaman reiterated Netanyahu's statement that the timing of the operation stemmed from operational considerations. "The operation tonight was at the best time from a professional-operational viewpoint, we were capable of hitting him at the right time and in the right place," he said.
Kochavi, meanwhile, said that Abu al-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 prusue an escalation.
Hayamin Hehadash Chairman Naftali Bennett began acting officially as defense minister on Tuesday morning, but did not participate in the press conference addressing the killing of the Islamic Jihad commander and the rocket fire that Gaza factions have aimed at Israel in retaliation. The government approved Bennett's appointment on Sunday.
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Netanyahu accused of using operation to promote political interests
Earlier Tuesday, several lawmakers lashed at Netanyahu for approving the operation to kill Abu al-Ata in order to tamper with the efforts of Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz to form a governing coalition, and pressure him into joining one led by the Likud chief.
Labor-Gesher lawmaker Omer Bar-Lev accused the prime minister of making the decision based on political reasons. “In the last year and a half, there were a large number of opportunities to eliminate [Abu al-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.”
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.
Netanyahu's rival Benny Gantz and his senior party leaders took a different stance, choosing to express support for the decision. “The political leadership and the Israeli army made the right decision tonight for the security of Israeli citizens and residents of the south.
"Kahol Lavan will support any appropriate action on behalf of the security of Israel and place the security of citizens above politics,” the former army chief of staff tweeted.
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.”