Israel’s assassination of Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu Al-Ata while he slept at his home in Shuja’iyah neighbourhood east of Gaza City also killed his wife. A simultaneous assassination attempt failed to kill Akram Al-Ajoury, another Islamic Jihad commander, at his home in Damascus; his son, though, was killed in the attack.
The unprovoked bombings occurred at a time of relative calm in besieged Gaza, taking everyone by surprise. A huge funeral procession buried Abu Al-Ata, while retaliation threats were made by the leadership of the movement.
“Our inevitable retaliation will rock the Zionist entity,” said Islamic Jihad. “These terrorist crimes are a declaration of war on the Palestinian people, and the enemy bears the responsibility for them.”
Hamas accused Israel of “bearing full responsibility for all consequences of this escalation” and pledged that Al-Ata’s death “will not go unpunished.”
The murders were also condemned by the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which described them as heinous crimes. They urged the “so-called international community” to intervene and put an end to Israel’s “culture of impunity”.
According to the factions’ Joint Operations Room, Israel’s resumption of assassinations will not weaken the resistance nor change the rules of engagement. “We will not allow Israel’s appetite to lead to more assassinations,” said a joint statement.
Retaliatory strikes from Gaza have reached as far as Tel Aviv today; some were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome Anti-Missile System. Air raid sirens sounded across the country. A number of air strikes were then carried out by Israel in the Gaza Strip, killing more Palestinians and destroying buildings. Regional and international mediation efforts are under way to contain the situation.
At the time of writing, the Ministry of Health in Gaza has said that five Palestinians have been killed in the enclave so far, including Abu Al-Ata and his wife. At least 30 others have been wounded.
Israel thinks that it can dictate the rules of engagement, and has warned Hamas that if it gets involved and provides cover for retaliatory attacks then its senior officials will be targeted. Such a threat is intended to embarrass the de facto government in Gaza in front of the Palestinian people. It ignores the fact that Hamas has sought to maintain a truce with Israel since the latter’s 2014 military offensive, in the hope that Tel Aviv eases the ongoing 12-year blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave the order for the assassination of the man Israelis considered to be third on the “most wanted” list for his role in Palestinian resistance activities. Analysts agree that Netanyahu wants to export his domestic problems into Gaza, not least his failure to form a new government. He also wants to encourage Naftali Bennett to accept the role of Defence Minister and test his ability to be in control and loyal to Netanyahu. The sabotage of Benny Gantz’s efforts to form a Blue and White-led coalition government within the remaining one week deadline is also on Netanyahu’s agenda behind the assassination of Abu Al-Ata. Opposition members of the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, accuse the incumbent Prime Minister of ordering the killing for personal gain. In doing this, the intention is to force Gantz to accept an emergency government headed by Netanyahu so that the latter can avoid prosecution on corruption charges.
According to political analyst Tholfikar Swairjo, the assassination operation was not a new policy but an urgent necessity to rescue the Israeli Prime Minister. “The developments and escalations might put Netanyahu in trouble, but this depends on the level of response from the Palestinians, Iranians and Syrians. He has become a dangerous mafia thug.”
Others think that this morning’s murders will lead to a dangerous escalation if not contained amid talk of serious ceasefire mediation efforts. “The developments on the ground will determine the level of response of the resistance factions,” explained political analyst Sharhabeel Al-Ghareeb.
No one will manage to contain the response of Islamic Jihad, insisted Hasan Abdu, another political expert. “Netanyahu has to pay the price for this crime. If the Palestinian battle lasts for any length of time then it will achieve its goals and embarrass Netanyahu for his miscalculation.”
In recent months, Israel has carried out training manoeuvres around the Gaza Strip and deployed extra troops in preparations for a possible large scale offensive on the besieged enclave. Many threats have been made under the pretext of stopping rocket fire and regaining the Israel Defence Forces’ deterrence factor.
The last such open assassination of a senior resistance figure was that of Hamas commander Ahmad Al-Jabari in November 2012, exactly seven years ago. That was followed by a full-scale Israeli military offensive on the Palestinians in Gaza. At the time, Al-Jabari was involved in truce negotiations with the Israelis.
We have to wait and see if “strongman” Netanyahu follows the killing of Bahaa Abu Al-Ata with another major offensive. If Hamas doesn’t respond, it will lose face amongst the Palestinians. If it does, a major military attack with devastating potential is the possible outcome. Netanyahu, it seems, is ready to do anything to boost his popularity and maintain his grip on power in Israel.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.