Smoke rises after an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza City home of Baha Abu al-Ata, the top commander of the military wing of Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, November 12. (Ahsraf Amra/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Raid Kills Islamic Jihad Commander in Gaza

Palestinians call it a declaration of war, vow strong response

Israel today launched an operation against senior leaders of Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, in the Gaza Strip and in Syria. Baha Abu Al-Ata, commander of Al-Quds in Gaza, and his wife were killed in an airstrike in the Shejaia neighborhood east of Gaza City. The operation also killed the son of Akram al-Ajouri, a member of the movement’s political bureau, at his home in Damascus. His father was believed to be Israel’s intended target.

In total, the Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said five people were killed and more than 20 were injured in the Israeli raids.

In retaliation, more than 160 missiles were fired at Israeli communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip. Several Israelis were slightly injured and the Israel Defense Forces closed several roads, schools and trains.

Musaab al-Bareen, Al-Quds Brigades spokesperson in Gaza, told The Media Line that the movement “considers the Israeli aggression against Islamic Jihad leaders as a declaration of war.” He said that Islamic Jihad is “going to respond in the near future in a way commensurate with the crime but in a way that cannot be imagined by the Zionist enemy.”

He called “the assassination of the martyr Baha a crime against humanity; he was a leader and a fighter, but before that, he was a human being. We are committed as a resistance movement to send a moral message that is internationally legitimate and defends the Palestinian people.”

Al-Bareen said that “since the Palestinian people are occupied by Israel in violation of their basic right to live on a daily basis, the resistance has the right at the national, international, humanitarian and legal levels to protect its people against any crime or aggression.”

As for the missiles Islamic Jihad has been firing into Israel, he said that “it’s too early to talk about a cease-fire when our full response is yet to come.”

Yaakov Amidror, former Israeli national security adviser, told The Media Line that Abu Al-Ata had been “initiating attacks on Israel by himself. In many cases, Hamas itself didn’t like it, and even his own organization didn’t know about the attacks.”

Amidror said, “We have learned throughout the years that, in many cases, tension in the Gaza Strip emerged because of him, because he made the decision to launch an operation against Israel or fire rockets or something else.”

He said that Israel “can’t solve the issue of Gaza in one operation, but Israeli forces can take him out of the equation. He triggered so many operations against us in the past, that’s why we concentrated on killing him.”

Amidror said that what happens next depends on how Islamic Jihad and Hamas respond. “It’s in the hands of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

Fawzi Barham, a Gaza-based spokesperson for Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, told The Media Line that “all of the Israeli accusations against Abu Al-Ata that he used to work for his own agenda, are fabrications aimed at dispersing the Palestinian leadership in Gaza and spread sedition in order to justify its awful crime. All Palestinians are being targeted by Israel but this crime is dangerous and huge. The resistance won’t accept less than an appropriate response in which Israel pays the price for its crime, so it doesn’t dare to do such an act again.”

Barham said that Hamas and Islamic Jihad “will join together to respond to the attack. This targeting is a planned crime ordered by the top of the Israeli political pyramid [Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin] Netanyahu. Therefore, the Israeli occupation is responsible for the escalation as well as its consequences.”

Ofer Gadman, a spokesperson for Netanyahu, declined to comment when contacted by The Media Line.

The Israeli Defense Forces recently said it was targeting Abu Al-Ata, considering him to be one of the three most dangerous figures to Israel’s security, along with Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and the commander of the Iranian Quds Force Qasem Soleimani.

Israeli military officials accused Abu Al-Ata of planning attacks against Israel and supervising the manufacture of weapons, as well as the improvement of long-range missile launch capabilities. Israeli military intelligence said he ordered the firing of missiles into southern Israel in April.

Although Islamic Jihad is a Sunni movement, it receives Iranian support, and Abu Al-Ata was considered a major supporter of Iran in Gaza. Israel sees Hezbollah’s attempt to destroy an Israeli drone over southern Lebanon last Thursday and bombings carried out by Islamic Jihad on Friday, as an Iranian plan to deter Israel.

Dikla Cohen, a research fellow at the Hebrew University’s Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace, told The Media Line that “Islamic Jihad in Gaza has gotten stronger over the past few years, but it’s not sovereign there. The real sovereign is Hamas. To Hamas, Abu Al-Ata had a very problematic reputation.”

Cohen said “there were many clashes between Abu Al-Ata and Hamas over the last decade. In one, shots were exchanged between Abu Al-Ata’s people and Hamas’ security apparatus. For Hamas, Abu Al-Ata was no small headache.”

And so, she said, “to the outside world, Hamas will say that the resistance has a unified approach and considers this killing a serious offense against the resistance. But in fact, his killing is a kind of solution to a problem – the repeated headache that Abu Al-Ata represented to Hamas. Abu Al-Ata was too independent for Hamas and made too many hasty decisions, in Hamas’ view.”

Ibrahim Melhem, spokesperson for the Palestinian government, told The Media Line that it “strongly condemned the assassination of Abu Al-Ata and the Israeli targeting of Palestinian leaders, which is part of Israel’s organized terrorism against the Palestinian people.”

He said, “This crime, as well as all of Israel’s daily crimes in Gaza and the West Bank, are being added to the file that was already submitted to the International Criminal Court. We call on all of our international friends and all human rights organizations to intervene and curb Israel’s lust for murder.”

Mazen Safi, a Palestinian analyst based in Gaza, told The Media Line that since Monday morning, “all government establishments and private companies and associations have been closed in anticipation of a possible escalation. There’s a heavy flow of Israeli military aircraft, with some limited raids. Despite huge pressure by international players as well as regional ones, nobody can tell what’s going to happen. It depends on the decision of the resistance leaders.”

Safi said that “how Israel reacts to the resistance’s response will determine whether the situation is heading towards a massive war or not.”

Efraim Perlmutter, a resident of Sde Nitzan, an Israeli community 5 miles from the Gaza Strip border, told The Media Line that “when the alarm [warning of incoming rockets from Gaza] is sounded, we have 15 to 30 seconds to find shelter.” Nevertheless, “in the past – 2014, for example – we had it much worse.” And while residents new to the area and those with small children were nervous, “the older folks have been through it so many times before.”

Steven Ganot contributed to this report.

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