TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip exchanged fire Saturday in the worst period of cross-border violence since the 11-day war between Israel and Hamas last year.
Israeli airstrikes killed 11 people, including a senior commander of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed militant group, who was killed in a targeted attack.
This follows the arrest this week of another senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank in a months-long Israeli operation to arrest Palestinians suspected of attacks.
Militants have fired dozens of rockets into 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 far outnumbers the ruling group Hamas. But it enjoys direct financial and military support from Iran and has become the driving force behind missile attacks and other confrontations with Israel.
Hamas, which gained control of Gaza in 2007 from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, is often limited in its ability to act because it bears responsibility for managing the day-to-day affairs of the impoverished region. Islamic Jihad has no such mandate and has emerged as the most militant faction, occasionally 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 present-day Israel. It has been designated a terrorist organization by the US State Department, the European Union and other governments. Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad has vowed to destroy Israel.
THE IRANIAN CONNECTION
Israel’s archenemy Iran supplies 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 that of Hamas, with longer-range rockets capable of hitting the Tel Aviv metropolitan area in central Israel. Air raid sirens went off in the suburbs just south of Tel Aviv on Friday, although no rockets appeared to have landed in the area.
Although based in Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has leadership in Beirut and Damascus, where it maintains close ties to Iranian officials.
Ziad al-Nakhalah, the group’s top leader, was in Tehran meeting Iranian officials when Israel launched its operation in Gaza on Friday.
This is not the first time Israel has killed Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza. The commander killed on Friday, Taiseer al-Jabari, replaced Bahaa Abu el-Atta who was killed by Israel in an attack in 2019. His death was the first high-profile killing of an Islamic Jihad operative by Israel since the war of 2014 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 responsible for Islamic Jihad’s militant activities in Gaza City and the northern Gaza Strip during the 2021 war. Israel said it was preparing to launch an anti-tank missile attack against Israel.
His death came after Israel arrested 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 in multiple stints in Israeli prisons for being an active member of Islamic Jihad. Israel killed two of his sons who were also Islamic Jihad fighters in separate incidents in 2002 and destroyed his home during a fierce battle in the West Bank city of Jenin that same year.
“Once you hit the commanders, it immediately affects the whole organization,” said Zvika Haimovic, a former head of the Israeli military’s air defense force.
“It immediately creates a big mess in Jihad.”
A SECOND BALANCE
Since seizing power in 2007, Hamas has fought four wars with Israel, often with the support of Islamic Jihad fighters. Apart from a flare-up earlier this year, the border has been largely quiet since last year’s 11-day war, and Hamas appears to be staying on the sidelines of this current conflagration, which may prevent it from spilling over into all-out war.
Islamic Jihad fighters have provoked Hamas by firing rockets, often without claiming responsibility, to raise its profile among Palestinians while Hamas maintains a ceasefire. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket fire from Gaza.
Hamas must walk a tightrope between containing Islamic Jihad’s fire in Israel while avoiding the wrath of the Palestinians if it suppresses the organization. As in previous flare-ups, Hamas will have the final say on how long — and how violent — this round of fighting lasts.
The current battles come as Israel is mired in a protracted political crisis that sends voters to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years this fall.
Caretaker leader Yair Lapid took over earlier this summer after the ideologically diverse government he helped form collapsed, triggering new elections.
Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, lacks the security background that many Israelis consider necessary for their leadership. His political fortunes could rest on the current battles, either gaining momentum if he can portray himself as a capable leader or being hit by a long operation as Israelis try to enjoy the final weeks of summer.
Lapid hopes to overcome former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk on trial on corruption charges, in the upcoming vote.
Akram reported from Gaza City, in the Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Emily Rose in Jerusalem contributed.