TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip exchanged fire Saturday in the worst cross-border violence since the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas last year.
Israeli airstrikes have killed 11 people, including a senior commander of the Iran-backed militant group Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who was killed in a targeted attack.
This follows the arrest this week of another senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank, Israel’s months-long operation to arrest Palestinians in connection with the attack.
Militants fired dozens of rockets into Israeli towns, disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Here is the latest round of violence:
in the shadow of Hamas
Islamic Jihad is the smaller of the two main Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip and far outnumbers the ruling Hamas group. But it has direct financial and military support from Iran and has become the driving force behind 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 operate because it handles day-to-day affairs in impoverished areas. Islamic Jihad has no such mandate and has become a more radical faction, sometimes undermining Hamas’ authority.
The group was established in 1981 to create an Islamic Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and now Israel. It has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, the European Union and other governments. Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad has vowed to destroy Israel.
Links with Iran
Israel’s longtime foe, Iran, provides 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 its long-range rockets capable of hitting the Tel Aviv metropolitan area in central Israel. Air raid sirens sounded in Tel Aviv’s southern suburbs on Friday, but no rockets appeared to hit the area.
Although its base is in the Gaza Strip, Islamic Jihad also has leadership in Beirut and Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials.
The group’s top leader, Ziad al-Nakhalah, was meeting Iranian officials in Tehran when Israel began operations in Gaza on Friday.
This is not the first time Israel has killed an Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza. Taiseer al-Jabari, the commander killed Friday, replaced Bahaa Abu el-Atta, who was killed by Israel in the 2019 strike. His death was Israel’s first high-profile assassination of an Islamic Jihad figure since the 2014 Gaza Strip war.
Jabari, 50, is a member of Islamic Jihad’s “Military Council”, the group’s decision-making body in Gaza. During the 2021 war, he is in charge of Islamic Jihad militant activities in Gaza City and the northern Gaza Strip. Israel said it was preparing to launch an anti-tank missile attack on Israel.
Earlier this week, Israel arrested a senior Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank before he died. Bassam al-Saadi, 62, is a senior Islamic Jihad official in the northern West Bank. According to Israeli media reports, al-Saadi is working to deepen the group’s influence and expand its capabilities in the West Bank.
Al-Saadi spent 15 years in Israeli prisons several times as an active member of Islamic Jihad. Israel killed two of his sons, who were also Islamic Jihad militants, in separate incidents in 2002, and destroyed his home in a fierce battle in the West Bank city of Jenin that same year.
“As soon as you hit the commander, it immediately affects the entire organization,” said Zwicka Khamovich, the former head of the Israeli military’s air defenses.
“It immediately created a big mess in the jihad.”
Since taking power in 2007, Hamas has fought four wars with Israel, often with the support of Islamic Jihad fighters. Aside from an outbreak earlier this year, the border has been largely calm since last year’s 11-day war, and Hamas appears to be on the sidelines of the current fire, which could prevent it from spreading into an all-out war. .
While Hamas maintains a ceasefire, Islamic jihadists have challenged Hamas by firing rockets, often without claiming responsibility, to raise its profile among Palestinians. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rockets from Gaza.
Hamas must walk a tightrope between restraining Islamic Jihad’s firepower against Israel while avoiding the anger of Palestinians when it hits the group. Like past outbreaks, Hamas will ultimately decide how long this round of fighting will last — and how violent.
The current fighting comes as Israel is mired in a protracted political crisis that is sending voters to the polls for the fifth time in the fall in less than four years.
Caretaker leader Yair Lapid took over earlier this summer after the fall of the ideologically diverse government he helped form, sparking fresh elections.
Rapid, a centrist former TV host and author, lacks the security background that many Israelis consider crucial to their leadership. His political fortunes may depend on the current battle, and he will get a boost if he can portray himself as a capable leader or take a hit in the long haul as Israelis try to enjoy the final weeks of the summer.
Rapide hopes to defeat former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who is on trial on corruption charges, in the upcoming vote.
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Emily Rose in Jerusalem contributed.