TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip exchanged fire Saturday in the worst episode of cross-border violence since last year’s 11-day war between Israel and Hamas.
Israeli airstrikes have killed 11 people, including a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed militant group, who was killed in a targeted strike.
That came after the arrest this week of another senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank in what has been a months-long Israeli operation to round up Palestinians suspected of attacks.
Militants have fired dozens of rockets at Israeli cities and towns, disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of people.
Here’s a look at 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 is vastly outnumbered by the ruling Hamas group. But it enjoys direct financial and military support from Iran, and has become the driving force for engaging in rocket attacks and other confrontations with Israel.
Hamas, which took control of Gaza in 2007 from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, is often limited in its ability to act because it is responsible for running the day-to-day affairs of the impoverished territory. Islamic Jihad has no such duties and has become the most militant faction, at times even undermining the authority of Hamas.
The group was founded in 1981 with the goal of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and all of what is now Israel. It is designated as a terrorist organization by the US State Department, the European Union and other governments. Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad has vowed to destroy Israel.
THE IRAN CONNECTION
Israel’s archenemy Iran provides Islamic Jihad with training, expertise and money, but most of the group’s weapons are produced locally. In recent years, it has developed an arsenal equal to Hamas’s, with longer-range rockets capable of hitting the Tel Aviv metropolitan area in central Israel. Air raid sirens sounded in the southern suburbs of Tel Aviv on Friday, although the rockets did not appear to have reached the area.
Although its base is in Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has leadership in Beirut and Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials.
Ziad al-Nakhalah, the group’s top leader, was in Tehran meeting with Iranian officials when Israel began its operation in Gaza on Friday.
This is not the first time Israel has killed Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza. The commander he killed on Friday, Taiseer al-Jabari, replaced Bahaa Abu el-Atta, who was killed by Israel in a 2019 attack. His death had been the first high-profile killing of an Islamic Jihad figure by of Israel since the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip.
Al-Jabari, 50, was a member of Islamic Jihad’s “military council,” the group’s decision-making body in Gaza. He was in charge of Islamic Jihad militant activities in Gaza City and the northern Gaza Strip during the 2021 war. Israel said he was preparing to launch an anti-tank missile attack on Israel.
His death came on the heels of Israel’s arrest of a senior Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank earlier this week. Bassam al-Saadi, 62, is a senior Islamic Jihad official in the northern West Bank. According to Israeli media, al-Saadi was working to deepen the group’s reach in the West Bank and expand its capabilities.
Al-Saadi spent a total of 15 years during various periods in Israeli jails for being 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 during a fierce battle in the West Bank city of Jenin the same year.
“Once you hit the commanders, it will immediately affect the entire organization,” said Zvika Haimovich, a former head of the Israeli army’s air defense force.
“It immediately creates a big mess in the Jihad.”
A DELICATE BALANCE
Since taking power in 2007, Hamas has fought four wars with Israel, often with the support of Islamic Jihad fighters. Aside from a flare-up earlier this year, the border has been mostly quiet since last year’s 11-day war and Hamas appears to be staying out of this current conflagration, which could prevent it from escalating into all-out war.
Islamic Jihad militants have defied Hamas by firing rockets, often without claiming responsibility, to raise their profile among Palestinians as Hamas maintains the ceasefire. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket fire from Gaza.
Hamas must walk a tightrope between restraining Islamic Jihad’s fire against Israel and avoiding the wrath of the Palestinians if it cracks down on the group. As in previous outbreaks, Hamas will have the final say on how long, and how violent, this round of fighting will last.
The current fight comes as Israel is mired in a protracted political crisis that is sending voters to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years this fall.
Interim leader Yair Lapid took office earlier this summer after the ideologically diverse government he helped form collapsed, prompting new elections.
Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, lacks the security experience that many Israelis see as essential to his leadership. His political fortunes could depend on the current fight, either gaining momentum if he can present himself as a capable leader or taking the hit of a prolonged operation as Israelis try to enjoy the final weeks of summer.
Lapid hopes to outperform former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who is on trial on corruption charges, in the next vote.
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press reporter Emily Rose in Jerusalem contributed.
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