What happened: An Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip overnight killed Baha Abu al Atta, a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander responsible for multiple rocket and border attacks against Israel in recent months. In response PIJ has since early morning fired 150 rockets at towns and cities in southern and central Israel including up to Tel Aviv and Modiin, near Jerusalem.
- The IDF said the killing of al-Atta was a pre-emptive strike as the PIJ leader was planning attacks in the coming days, including a complex sniper and explosive device ground operation against Israeli forces on the Israeli-Gaza border.
- Israel has closed all schools, non-essential workplaces and rail travel from the Gaza border region up to Tel Aviv, and has also shut its two border crossings with Gaza as well as limited the Gaza fishing zone to 6 nautical miles. The IDF spokesman has said it is “preparing for a number of days of fighting” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu adding that “it could take time.” Israel, the prime minister said, “was not interested in escalation but we will do everything to defend ourselves.”
- PIJ has “declared open war on Israel” and an “unprecedented” response to the killing of its northern brigade commander in Gaza. In a separate incident, an airstrike in Damascus, Syria overnight targeted another senior PIJ commander. According to Arab press reports the commander survived the attack but killed a family member and additional person. The IDF has declined to comment on the incident.
Context: Baha Abu al Atta was, according to IDF chief of staff Aviv Kochavi, responsible for the majority of attacks emanating from Gaza over the past year. These included at least two major waves of rocket attacks against Israel in recent months (May and August 2019), a recent rocket barrage in late October, as well as lethal sniper fire and other border attacks.
- Abu al Atta was previously described as the PIJ brigade commander for the northern Gaza Strip, although both Kochavi and Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman referred to him earlier today as the PIJ military commander for the entire Gaza Strip. Atta was also thought to be close to the more extreme PIJ leadership in Damascus as well as Iran, the group’s patron.
- Israel had issued many warnings, both public and through back-channels, to al-Atta, PIJ and Hamas demanding that the attacks stop. With that, the IDF was at pains to stress that this was not a reversion to its past policy of “targeted assassinations” but rather a “surgical strike” against a specific militant commander that it deemed a “ticking bomb.” However, Kochavi did threaten a resumption of Israel’s “targeted assassination” policy against terrorist leaders if the fighting escalated.
- The strike overnight and this morning’s escalation come at a sensitive political moment in Israel. Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, still has eight days to form a government. He along with other senior party figures came out strongly in support of the government’s policy, still led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to additional reports, Gantz received prior information about the attack from Netanyahu last week. Planned coalition talks this afternoon between Gantz and Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beitenu faction, were postponed until tomorrow.
- Netanyahu said the operation was approved by the Security Cabinet ten days ago, and was carried out at the initiative and with the approval of the IDF and Shin Bet. Netanyahu attempted to deflect any accusations of a political motive by appearing at the press conference with both Kochavi and Argaman, who made statements in support of the government’s action. Netanyahu urged Israelis to be patient, saying Israel’s military response could take time.
- In a statement from the EU, Maja Kocijancic, the spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, said “The firing of rockets on civilian populations is totally unacceptable and must immediately stop. A rapid and complete de-escalation is now necessary to safeguard the lives and security of Palestinian and Israeli civilians.”
Looking ahead: The IDF has carried out air strikes against PIJ military targets in Gaza, including individual rocket crews. 2 Palestinians have been killed, both reported to be PIJ operatives firing rockets. Israel’s Home Front Command is urging civilians to remain vigilant and follow orders, including staying at home. 29 Israelis have been injured in incidents related to rocket attacks. An Egyptian intelligence delegation is reportedly on its way to Israel for talks and may travel to Gaza later in the day in an effort to broker a ceasefire. The real question going forward is whether Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, will work to reign in PIJ or join in the fighting. Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman said that Atta never accepted Hamas’ indirect ceasefire talks with Israel and worked to scuttle it by launching attacks against southern Israel.