Rockets raining down on Israel from Gaza

  • Paula
I woke up at 08:00 on Tuesday to sirens blaring across Tel Aviv. Disconcerted, I looked out of my bedroom window to see the usual morning traffic screeching to an immediate standstill. Buses were pulling over, and frightened passengers were jumping out to lie down on the surface of the emergency lanes. I was still groggy with sleep and it took a few seconds to comprehend what was happening. I stumbled to the second bedroom that doubles up as a bomb shelter (according to Israeli law, all buildings built since the 1990s must have one), closed the heavy door, and waited. A few seconds passed. Then, finally awake, I remembered that I am a journalist and the last place I should be – literally and figuratively – is in the dark about what was happening. I ventured out.
by PAULA SLIER | Nov 14, 2019

For many Israelis, the assassination of Baha Abu al-Ata, a leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) movement, in the early hours of Tuesday came as a surprise. In retrospect, the warning signs were there. Abu al-Ata commanded men in the northern Gaza Strip and was behind a number of recent attacks against Israel. The Jerusalem authorities had warned him that he was on their wanted list.

At the time of going to print, around 350 rockets had been launched from Gaza in retaliation for his killing. So far, there have been around 50 people treated for minor injuries on the Israeli side and 21 Gazans have been killed in ongoing Israeli air strikes.

What happens next will depend on the PIJ and Hamas. If the Islamist militants continue to fire rockets into Israel and Hamas joins the attacks, Israel will escalate its operation.

So who exactly is the PIJ and can Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, rein it in?

The primary patron and financier of the PIJ is Iran. For months already, Jerusalem has been concerned that Tehran will launch an attack against Israel, either from Syria or Gaza. The fear is that it could be similar to the one it carried out against a Saudi oil refinery two months ago, when it used cruise missiles and killer drones. That incident, although criticised by United States President Donald Trump, did not result in a military response from Washington, causing many in the region who consider the US an ally to carefully weigh up their options. Israelis and Saudis are concerned that should Iran do something similar against them, the US will not automatically come to their defence.

In this respect, Israel sent an important message on Tuesday morning: It will not cower in the face of Iranian threats and will take the initiative, with or without US backing, in protecting its civilians.

It was the first time in five years that Israel carried out a targeted assassination in Gaza. At the same time, another PIJ official’s home in Damascus was struck. The group was quick to blame Israel, and although it seems likely that Jerusalem was behind that attack too, as is its practice when operating in Syria, the Israeli army did not confirm responsibility. Syrian media reported that two people were killed and six were wounded. 

At the time of writing, Hamas was considering its options. It is acutely aware that the last Israel-Hamas war, in 2014, left thousands of families whose homes were destroyed or damaged without compensation. The economic crisis in Gaza has led to protests against Hamas, hence its cautious response to the assassination.

By contrast, the PIJ stated unequivocally that it would avenge its leader’s death. It needs to do this to save face and also score points among Gazans with the message that, unlike Hamas, it is not prepared to make concessions to Israel. Hamas understands this, but it is reluctant to engage in a new war with Jerusalem.

For now, it seems that Hamas will allow the PIJ to retaliate against Israel for killing its senior commander. All eyes are on Cairo to arrange a ceasefire. 

Meanwhile, in Israel, the discussion is centred on the timing of the Israeli strike. Was it merely fortuitous – did Israeli intelligence pay off and they saw an opportunity to kill Abu al-Ata? Or, does Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as many suggest, want to take credit as he faces a stalemate at the polling station?

Tellingly, Netanyahu convened a press conference on Tuesday attended by himself, the chief of staff of the army, Aviv Kochavi, and Shin Bet director Nadav Argaman. The absence of Naftali Bennett, the newly appointed defence minister, was glaring, even though Tuesday was his first day on the job. It suggests that Netanyahu is hedging his bets: If the assassination bodes well in the long run, he’ll take credit; if not, he can somehow push it onto Bennett.

The killing certainly doesn’t help the leader of the centre-left Blue and White party, Benny Gantz, in his attempts to form a majority coalition government before his mandate expires in a few days.

Whereas Gantz was quick to support the assassination, the leaders of the Arab Joint List whom he has been courting were just as quick to label it “a political war”. It’s difficult to see how co-operation between Gantz and the Joint List is now possible. Also, should Israel embark on a large-scale operation in Gaza, it will be highly unlikely that Gantz will be able to meet and negotiate with parties while rockets are being fired at the country.

Four hours before the airstrike, Netanyahu tweeted twice – at an unusually late hour for him. In one tweet he said that “forming a government with the Joint List would be a resounding slap in the face of IDF [Israel Defence Forces] soldiers”. A short time later, he tweeted a photograph of the Joint List parliamentarian Ahmad Tibi with Yasser Arafat and wrote: “This is who Gantz and [Avigdor] Lieberman are building their government with? A narrow government supported by the Arab parties = danger to the state.”

To be fair, the Cabinet authorised the assassination last week on the recommendation of the military and the Shin Bet security service. So, the cynical view that Netanyahu ordered this operation to block Gantz’s path to a narrow coalition government doesn’t necessarily hold true.

But the fact that it happened during one of the most politically fraught times in Israel’s history cannot be ignored. 

And just in case, tonight (Wednesday) I’m sleeping in the sheltered bedroom.



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