Israel on Tuesday targeted two senior commanders from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, killing one in the Gaza Strip and missing the second in Syria as it stepped up its battle against Iran and its proxies across the region.
The death of Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife as they slept in their home in eastern Gaza set off the heaviest fighting in months between Israel and Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed militant group that is even more hard-line than Gaza’s Hamas rulers. Gaza militants fired scores of rockets into Israel throughout the day, some reaching as far as Tel Aviv, while Israeli warplanes responded with a series of airstrikes on Islamic Jihad targets. Eight others were killed, including at least seven militants.
“Whoever thinks that it is possible to hurt our citizens and evade our long arm is mistaken,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a meeting of top security officials at Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv.
He described Abu el-Atta as a “ticking time bomb” and “the main instigator of terrorism” from Gaza, responsible for many rocket attacks on Israel and planning more.
He said the killing had been approved 10 days earlier, and that Israel had waited for the “optimal conditions” to hit him while minimizing civilian casualties. He said Israel was not interested in escalation but warned: “This could take time.”
Egypt, which frequently mediates between Israel and Gaza militants, was working to de-escalate tensions, according to officials in Cairo. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
In a possible sign the fighting could be brief, Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group did not take part in Tuesday’s rocket fire. Although larger and more powerful than Islamic Jihad, Hamas is also more pragmatic. With Gaza’s economy in tatters, it appears to have little desire for another round of fighting with Israel.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said in speeches in recent weeks that Iran, Israel’s archenemy, is becoming increasingly aggressive across the region and vowed to strike back.
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