TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip exchanged fire on Saturday in the worst bout of cross-border violence since last year’s 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.
11 people have been killed in an Israeli airstrike, including a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Iran-backed terrorist group, who was killed in a targeted attack.
It came after the arrest this week of another senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, a months-long Israeli operation to corner Palestinians suspected of attacks.
Terrorists have fired dozens of rockets at Israeli cities and towns, disrupting the lives of thousands.
Here’s a look at the latest round of violence:
in the shadow of Hamas
Islamic Jihad is the smaller of the two main Palestinian terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, and is heavily outnumbered by the ruling Hamas group. But it has direct financial and military support from Iran, and has become a driving force in its involvement in rocket attacks and other confrontations with Israel.
Hamas, which seized control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007, is often limited in its ability to act as it assumes responsibility for running the day-to-day affairs of the impoverished region. Islamic Jihad has no such duty and has emerged as a more militant faction, sometimes undermining the authority of Hamas.
The group was founded in 1981 with the aim of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and now Israel. It has been designated a terrorist organization by the US State Department, the European Union and other governments. Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad has sworn to destroy Israel.
Israel’s arch enemy Iran supplies training, expertise and funding to Islamic Jihad, but most of the group’s weapons are locally produced. In recent years, it has developed an arsenal comparable to that of Hamas, with long-range rockets capable of attacking the Tel Aviv metropolitan area of central Israel. Air raid sirens went off in the suburbs south of Tel Aviv on Friday, although no rockets were hit in the area.
Although its base is Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has leadership in Beirut and Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials.
The group’s top leader, Ziad al-Nakhla, was meeting with Iranian officials in Tehran when Israel launched its operation in Gaza on Friday.
This is not the first time Israel has killed Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza. Commander Taisir al-Jabri, killed on Friday, replaces Baha Abu al-Atta, who was killed by Israel in the 2019 strike. His death was the first high-profile killing of a man of Islamic Jihad by Israel since the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip.
Al-Jabari, 50, was a member of Islamic Jihad’s “Military Council”, the group’s decision-making body in Gaza. He was in charge of Islamic Jihad terrorist activities in Gaza City and the northern Gaza Strip during the 2021 war. Israel said it was preparing an anti-tank missile attack against Israel.
His death follows the Israeli arrest of a senior Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank earlier this week. Bassam al-Saadi, 62, is a senior official of Islamic Jihad in the northern West Bank. According to Israeli media, al-Saadi was working to deepen the group’s reach and expand its capabilities in the West Bank.
Al-Saadi spent a total of 15 years in Israeli prisons for being an active Islamic Jihad member. Israel killed two of his sons, who were also Islamic Jihad terrorists, in separate incidents in 2002, and destroyed their home in the same year during a fierce fighting in the West Bank city of Jenin.
“Once you kill the commanders it will immediately affect the whole organization,” said Zvika Hamovich, former chief of the Israeli Army Air Defense Forces.
“It immediately creates a major disturbance in jihad.”
a delicate balance
Since seizing power in 2007, Hamas has fought four wars with Israel, often with the support of Islamic Jihad fighters. Apart from the escalation earlier this year, the border has remained largely calm since last year’s 11-day war and Hamas remains aloof from the current confrontation, which could prevent it from escalating into an all-out war.
Islamic Jihad militants have challenged Hamas to raise their profile among Palestinians by firing rockets, often without claiming responsibility, while Hamas maintains a ceasefire. Israel blames Hamas for all rocket fires from Gaza.
Hamas must take a tough tread on Israel between reining in the fires of Islamic Jihad, while avoiding crackdown on the Palestinians group. Like previous flare-ups, Hamas’s final decision will be on how long – and how violent – this period of fighting will last.
The current battle comes as Israel is mired in a protracted political crisis that is sending voters to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years.
Acting leader Yair Lapid helped trigger new elections after an ideologically diverse government earlier this summer.
Lapid, a centrist former TV presenter and writer, lacks the security background many Israelis consider essential to his leadership. His political fortunes may rest on the current battle, either a boost if he can portray himself as a capable leader or take a hit from a protracted operation as Israel enjoys the last weeks of the summer. Let’s try.
Lapid hopes to oust former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who is on trial for corruption charges, in the upcoming vote.
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Emily Rose in Jerusalem contributed.