Analysis: Israel under rocket attack after terror chief killed

More than 250 rockets have been launched at Israeli towns and cities by terrorist groups in Gaza over the past two day. The attacks followed an Israeli airstrike on Tuesday morning which targeted and killed the military commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Baha Abu al-Atta, Israel says, was responsible for multiple rocket and border attacks on Israel in recent months and was said to be planning a further “imminent” attack.

In response to the strike on Abu al-Atta, the Iranian-backed PIJ declared “open war on Israel”. On Tuesday, air raid sirens sounded in Israel as far north as Tel Aviv and Rishon Lezion and as far east as Modiin, near to Jerusalem. A rocket hit a highway outside Gan Yavne, as well as a home in Netivot.

Forty-eight Israelis were reportedly injured in incidents related to the rocket attacks, including an eight-year-old girl who collapsed and lost consciousness during a rocket barrage on the central city of Holon. Seventeen fatalities – the vast majority PIJ fighters, according to reports – have occurred in Gaza.

All schools and non-essential workplaces, as well as rail travel, were closed from the Gaza border to Tel Aviv some 40 miles away. Israel’s two border crossings with Gaza were also been closed.

The European Union condemned the attacks, saying: “The firing of rockets on civilian populations is totally unacceptable and must immediately stop. A rapid and complete de-escalation is now necessary to safeguard the lives and security of Palestinian and Israeli civilians.”

After an overnight lull, PIJ fired a large number of rockets early on Wednesday morning. After initially targeting the greater Tel Aviv area with long-range barrages on Tuesday, PIJ subsequently fired short-range rockets and mortar shells at Israeli villages and towns in the southern region.

The IDF said it expects “several days of battle,” and it is prepared for attacks targeting the south and centre of the country. The IDF attacked PIJ military targets in Gaza on Tuesday and Wednesday after the rocket fire began. It appears to be avoiding Hamas sites in order to prevent the outbreak of a wider conflict. The Israeli military has also not attacked dense population centres and high-rise buildings to minimise civilian casualties, instead hitting PIJ rocket crews and other military sites.

Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the country was “not interested in escalation but we will do everything to defend ourselves”.

Abu al-Atta is believed to have been planning several attacks in the coming days, including a complex sniper and explosive device ground operation against Israeli forces on the Gaza border. PIJ’s military wing, the Al-Quds Brigade, said its former commander played “a prominent role in supervising the execution of many operations that [it] carried out against the enemy”.

The IDF said that Abu al-Atta was “behind most and almost all of the Islamic Jihad’s attacks against Israel” since August 2018. These included at least two major waves of rocket attacks – in October and November 2018 when over 450 missiles were fired at Israel and in May 2019 when more than 700 were launched at the Jewish state – as well lethal sniper fire and other border attacks. He also oversaw a rocket barrage at the end of last month.

Abu al-Atta headed the military council of the Al-Quds Brigade and commanded the organisation’s operations in northern Gaza, but is also said to have wielded great influence on the southern front.

Israel had issued public warnings to PIJ and Hamas to stop the attacks, and also urged Abu al-Atta through intermediaries to halt them.

Established in 1979, PIJ is, after Hamas, the second largest terror group in Gaza, although it is considered by the IDF to be the more volatile and extreme of the two. Its founders were inspired by the Iranian revolution and their goal was to establish an Islamic state on the entire territory that constituted Mandate Palestine (that is, modern day Israel, Gaza and the West Bank). Forty years on, the group remains committed to that goal, believing that Israel’s very presence is an affront to Islam and its conquest is a holy task. According to its manifesto, it rejects “any peaceful solution to the Palestinian cause” and calls “the Jihad solution and the martyrdom style … the only choice for liberation”.

PIJ thus rejects a two-state solution, is dedicated solely to violent jihad and refuses any negotiations with Israel.

Together with the hundreds of rockets it has fired at Israel from Gaza, it is responsible for the deaths of dozens of Israeli civilians and soldiers. PIJ began recruiting suicide bombers in the early 1990s and has carried out numerous attacks. These included a suicide bombing at a Tel Aviv shopping mall, which killed 13 people, and an attack on a Jerusalem market which killed 20. PIJ is also active in the West Bank, where it supports and carries out terror activities.

PIJ is designated a terrorist organization by the UK, European Union, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and others. It is supported by Iran, which reportedly gives it more than $30m per year.

Abu al-Atta’s death now places Hamas – which had done nothing to restrain his activities, however irritating it at times found them – in a dilemma. “It does not want a major escalation with Israel, given that the situation in Gaza has been getting a bit better: The electricity supply has improved. The Rafah border crossing has been opened to a major influx of trade from Egypt. And Hamas’s image with the Palestinian public is improving, relative to the weakening Fatah,” wrote Avi Issacharoff in the Times of Israel.

However, Islamic Jihad appears determined to respond. “If Hamas tries to stop Islamic Jihad at this stage, before the region gets hotter still, it will be accused of collaborating with Israel. But if it allows Islamic Jihad to run wild with massive rocket fire, that is likely to lead to a harsh Israeli response, which in turn will draw in Hamas. And very quickly, Hamas and Israel will find themselves entering a major round of conflict of the kind last seen in the summer of 2014,” he warned.