Israel hopes to dictate rules of engagement with Gaza offensive
LONDON - Israel’s assassination of Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu Al-Atta in Gaza has led to fierce retaliation.
The pre-dawn aerial attack November 12 on Abu Al-Atta’s house killed him and his wife and damaged surrounding houses. The operation coincided with an attack on the Damascus residence of another Islamic Jihad commander, Akram Al-Ajouri, which killed his son.
Islamic Jihad vowed to avenge Abu Al-Atta’s death and fired retaliatory rockets into Israel. “These terrorist crimes are an aggression and a declaration of war on the Palestinian people and the enemy bears the full responsibility,” Islamic Jihad said in a statement. Hamas held Israel responsible.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu approved the targeted killing of Abu Al-Atta, who was listed as Israel’s third-most wanted man and was accused of being behind rocket fire from Gaza. “Whoever thinks that it is possible to hurt our citizens and evade our long arm is mistaken,” Netanyahu said.
Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, appointed by Netanyahu after the killing of Al-Atta, threatened to target other Islamic Jihad commanders. Other Israeli officials warned Hamas not to retaliate. Bennett and Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said if Hamas joined Islamic Jihad, then its leaders would be attacked, too.
The ultimatum forces Hamas to either stand idle while Islamic Jihad members are attacked or risk retaliation from Israel.
An Egyptian-mediated truce went into effect November 14. It was not clear whether Israel agreed to abide by Islamic Jihad’s demands or if the ceasefire would be implemented.
Political analyst Adnan Abu Amer said neither side wants a war but it’s clear a unified response is being led in the Joint Operations Room organised by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
“The response of the resistance groups shows the unified efforts to counter Israeli attacks. Israel thought killing Abu Al-Atta would not provoke fierce reprisal from Palestinians,” Abu Amer said. “The Joint Operations Room, which includes Hamas and Islamic Jihad, is in charge of the retaliation and it adopts a new strategy of gradual responses depending on the developments on the ground.”
Israeli warplanes carried out more than 100 air strikes, killing at least 34 Palestinians. Residential houses and civilian targets were also hit. Palestinian groups have fired more than 200 rockets into Israel, Israeli sources said.
UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process Nickolay Mladenov urged calm, saying the United Nations was trying to de-escalate the conflict. “I am very concerned about the ongoing and serious escalation between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel,” he said. “We also condemn the indiscriminate use of rockets and mortars into Israeli towns bordering Gaza.”
Mladenov said an Egyptian intelligence team was attempting to mediate and convince both sides to respect the undeclared ceasefire.
Islamic Jihad leader Ziyad al-Nakhalah said during a televised interview that Israeli threats to target him personally if the group retaliates do not scare him.
He spelled out conditions for a ceasefire: an end to Israel’s targeted killing of “Palestinian resistance fighters,” an end to attacks on protests around Gaza’s security fence and the lifting of a 12-year Israeli siege on Gaza, as per the Cairo agreement.
Netanyahu demanded that the issue of Israeli soldiers held in Hamas’ captivity should be on the table for Islamic Jihad’s conditions to be met, which again thrusts Hamas into the equation.
Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2006, has tried to maintain a long-term truce since Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza. Israel has often held Hamas responsible for escalating military conflict but this time targeted only Islamic Jihad facilities and fighters.
Nevertheless, Israeli officials recently threatened Gaza, with the stated goal of ending the rocket fire.
Mkahimer Abuseda, a political science professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza, said no regional or international response is guaranteed to stop Israel from carrying out “rogue assassinations.”
“The response of the Palestinian resistance groups through the firing of its retaliatory rockets, which paralysed many areas across Israel, is the only deterrence that will end Israel’s policy and attacks,” said Abuseda.
“Netanyahu is under extreme pressure from his opponents for failing to stop the rocket fire from Gaza.”
Islamic Jihad is the second-most powerful armed group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas. Netanyahu often warns about Iran’s role in supporting and arming Hezbollah in Lebanon and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
Abu Al-Atta’s killing came at a sensitive time for Netanyahu, who heads a caretaker government and is struggling to keep his long political career alive. His chief rival, Blue and White alliance leader Benny Gantz, is trying to form a government.
Israel’s general election in September ended in deadlock and a new government has yet to be formed. It was Israel’s second election since April when polls also ended inconclusively.
It remains to be seen if Netanyahu’s goals will be achieved but Islamic Jihad seems intent on stopping him from changing the rules of engagement and using the conflict to bolster his “strongman” image.