Military says it is prepared for several days of fighting after assassinating a senior Islamic Jihad commander in the Strip
By Judah Ari Gross -www.timesofisrael.com
The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday ordered schools and non-essential businesses closed in southern and central Israel, including the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, as terror groups in the Gaza Strip began firing rockets at cities and towns throughout the country in retaliation for the assassination of Palestinian Islamic Jihad senior commander Baha abu al-Ata.
“We are prepared for several days of battle with an aerial defense shield, including in the center of the country,” IDF spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters Tuesday morning.
The IDF Home Front Command ordered all schools and non-essential businesses closed in the following areas: the Gaza periphery; the Lachish region; the western Negev; the central Negev; the Shfela region; the Dan region, including Tel Aviv; and the Yarkon region.
In the Dan and Yarkon regions, the military forbade all public gatherings of more than 300 people. In the other regions, the IDF forbade gatherings of more than 100 people.
It was the first time that the IDF ordered a closure of schools and businesses in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area since the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
Rocket attacks began shortly after the killing of al-Ata early Tuesday morning, most of them focused on Israeli towns and cities surrounding the northern Gaza Strip. Shortly after 7 a.m., rocket sirens sounded in the Tel Aviv suburbs of Rishon Lezion and Holon. An hour later, sirens blared in the southern neighborhoods of Tel Aviv and in the nearby suburbs of Bat Yam and Holon.
As of 8 a.m. Tuesday, no injuries directly caused by the rocket fire were reported, though medics treated three people, including a 93-year-old man, for light wounds caused by falls while running to bomb shelters.
Hospitals and other emergency services were put on high alert in light of the ongoing rocket attacks.
The Ben Gurion International Airport was not affected by the closures. “Ben Gurion Airport is working as usual with no changes to the flight schedule,” a spokesman for the Israeli Airports Authority said.
“We are ready for various scenarios, both offensive and defensive. We are not interested in escalating the situation,” IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus said Tuesday.
He said the IDF has sent messages to Hamas, through unidentified third parties, urging the terror group to not take in this round of fighting.
“We are monitoring [Hamas’s] activities and will conduct ourselves accordingly,” he said.
At approximately 4 a.m. Tuesday, Israeli Air Force jets fired precision ammunition at a building in the Shejaiya area of Gaza City where al-Ata was staying, killing him, in a joint operation by the IDF and Shin Bet security service. A woman was also killed and two other people were injured in the strike, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.
According to the IDF, al-Ata was planning to carry out rocket attacks and other terrorist activities against Israel and was also directly responsible for several cases of rocket fire over the past six months.
“We know that he was behind most and almost all of the PIJ’s attacks against Israel going back to the 25 of August, including before Memorial Day,” Conricus said, referring to several cases of rocket strikes.
The military said it had sent a number of warnings to al-Ata — through unidentified mediators — to call off his operations, but they went unheeded.
“We tried to send a message to al-Ata and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad that we are aware of his actions and to persuade him to stop these attacks. Obviously, these warnings were not successful,” said IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus.
Conricus said the assassination did not signify “a return to previous policies of what has been termed in the media ‘targeted killings.’”
“We conducted the attack because there were no other choice,” he said.
The timing of the IAF strike — in the midst of heated political debate as prime minister-designate Benny Gantz works to form a coalition — drew immediate criticism from opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who questioned the need to conduct a targeted assassination at this time.
Conricus said the IDF asked for permission from Netanyahu, who serves as both prime and defense minister, as well as the security cabinet to carry out the assassination operation a week ago and was waiting for the right time to act.
“Over the last week, we have been waiting for the opportune moment to conduct the surgical strike,” he said.
The army spokesman said the military saw its chance on Tuesday morning when al-Ata was relatively isolated and the risk to civilians was less.
“The missiles were fired from fighter jets with the intention of not bringing down the entire building, but just the floor where he was located,” Conricus said.
He said he was aware of the reports of additional casualties in the strike, but could not comment on the matter.
Conricus said the military did not believe that al-Ata was acting on the orders of Iran, which backs the PIJ, but was “more a local terrorist who acted unchecked.”
Israeli military officials hinted at having al-Ata on their kill list in recent weeks, leaking his name and picture to the media in what was widely seen as a tacit threat.
The targeted killing of a Palestinian leader in Gaza is a rare event.
In May, during the most serious flareup in recent years, when Palestinian terrorists fired more than 700 rockets into Israel, the IAF killed Hamed Hamdan al-Khodari, who it said was responsible for funneling money from Iran to Gaza terror groups.
Israel and Gaza have engaged in several sporadic rounds of violence over the last two years as the sides attempted to reach a long-term ceasefire.