A wave of rockets flew into southern Israel and the Tel Aviv metropolitan area Tuesday, shutting down schools and places of work across southern and central Israel, following the Israeli targeted assassination of a top Islamic Jihad terrorist in the Gaza Strip.
The worst escalation since Israel and Hamas fought a six-week war in 2014 stymied much of the country, but also prompted what political observers said could be a breakthrough in the political deadlock that followed September’s election.
On Tuesday, homes were destroyed, rockets exploded on highways, shopping malls shuttered and pedestrians in Tel Aviv scurried for cover. At least 150 rockets rained down on Israeli cities from Sderot to a suburb of Modiin to Tel Aviv. Slightly more than three dozen Israelis were lightly injured.
Employees at so-called “non-essential” offices or businesses were instructed by Israel’s Home Front Command to remain at home with school children.
The rocket salvos came hours after Israel launched a pre-dawn airstrike at the Gaza home of Baha Salim Abu Alata, killing the military leader and his wife. On the same day, Israel was accused of ordering an assassination against a top commander of Islamic Jihad in Damascus.
In addition to Abu Alata and his wife, two Gazans were killed and 18 others were injured.
In a Tuesday press conference, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Abu Alata of being a terrorist “mastermind” who had been the main commander ordering attacks on Israel in the last year.
“He was a ticking bomb,” Netanyahu said. “Whoever thinks they can hurt our citizens and evade the long arm of retaliation is mistaken. We have proven that we can surgically strike any place where terrorists may hide. Whoever strikes at us, we will strike them.”
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said that Abu Alata was the de facto senior Islamic Jihad commander in the Gaza Strip, and singlehandedly undermined the relative truce between Israel and Hamas.
Islamic Jihad is the largest militant group in the Gaza Strip after Hamas, though it is backed by Iran and doesn’t have a substantial political or grassroots support in Gaza. Over the last 13 years, Islamic Jihad’s power has grown. Friction had been growing between the two organizations in recent months due to Gaza’s deepening economic crisis and Abu Alata’s increasingly independent military policy against Israel, said Giora Eiland, a former IDF general and a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies.
“Hamas tries to create a facade of unity in Gaza and to claim they are responsible for the situation there,” Eiland explained. “But they understand that Islamic Jihad is actually threatening the ability of Hamas to control Gaza. They are a real opposition.”
Israel has sent messages that it wants to calm the hostilities in the hope that Hamas will avoid joining the fray.
“What comes next is dependent on the actions of Hamas. For the leadership, it’s better to continue without the Islamic Jihad brigade commander that interfered with its efforts to extend the calm” and keep Israel at bay, wrote Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel. “On the other hand, Hamas is attentive to the grassroots sentiment and doesn’t want to be portrayed as a collaborator with Israel…. These are circumstances in which it’s very easy to lose control and reach a much wider escalation.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, after hundreds of rockets were fired in Israel, Palestinian militants announced that worse attacks may be on the way.
Unity Under Fire
Netanyahu’s decision was backed by his political rival Benny Gantz, who is trying to put together a coalition after getting a mandate several weeks ago. Gantz’s statement on Twitter struck a neutral, official tone.
“The political echelon and the IDF made the correct decision for the security of Israeli citizens and residents of the south,” Gantz, head of the Blue and White party, wrote. “Blue and White will back every proper decision for Israel’s security and will put the security of residents over politics.”
Avigdor Lieberman, the former defense minister who has recently turned against Netanyahu, took a more critical tone. He claimed that he had recommended assassinating the Islamic Jihad leader a year ago but that Netanyahu demurred. “Better late than never,” he said in an interview with Israeli television.
Over the weekend, Lieberman was again at the center of the political stalemate that followed the last round of inconclusive elections. He threatened both parties that he would support their rival if they didn’t accept a compromise plan for a unity government put forward by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. The compromise would force Netanyahu to part ways with his alliance of religious parties and force Gantz to serve under Netanyahu.
The targeted assassination came just hours before Naftali Bennett, a hawk from the New Right party, was supposed to officially become defense minister. Netanyahu appointed Bennett at the end of last week, in a move intended to keep Bennett from aligning with Gantz.
Some Israelis suggested that the attack was timed to bolster Netanyahu’s standing, and narrow the negotiating options of Gantz — whose party has been mulling a coalition with the predominantly Israeli Arab Joint List party. Netanyahu is expected to be indicted in the coming weeks on corruption charges in three separate cases — a development that would weaken his hold on the premiership.
Though Netanyahu has generally avoided provocative military actions, Haaretz reported in September that he ordered a wide-ranging retaliation for a rocket salvo that interrupted a campaign event in Ashdod. He was blocked, however, by legal authorities because he had not convened Israel’s security cabinet to get approval.
“Bibi is the most cynical guy in the world. This is typical wag the dog,” said Mitchell Barak, an Israeli American public opinion expert. “His only ticket has been terror and security. Now he’s where he’s comfortable, next to the generals. ‘Let’s show that I’m the only guy that can do it.’”
Barak and others speculated that a continued state of emergency and escalation would give political cover for Gantz and Netanyahu to make the concessions necessary to form a unity government.
“This might give the two main parties a good excuse to change some of their political moves and commitments, and go more quickly to a unity government,” he said. “Ironically maybe Islamic Jihad will help Israel make a unity government, something we have failed to do until now by ourselves.”