TEL-AVIV, Israel — Israeli and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip exchanged fire on Saturday in the worst episode of cross-border violence since an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas last year.
Israeli airstrikes killed 11 people, including a senior commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed militant group, who was killed in a targeted attack.
This follows the arrest this week of another senior Islamic Jihad operative in the West Bank as part of a month-long Israeli operation to round up Palestinians suspected of attacks.
The militants fired dozens of rockets into Israeli towns and villages, 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 group, Hamas. But it enjoys direct financial and military support from Iran and has become the driving force behind rocket attacks and other clashes with Israel.
Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, is often limited in its ability to operate as it bears responsibility for running the day-to-day affairs of the impoverished territory. Islamic Jihad has no such duties and has become the most militant faction, sometimes 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 a terrorist organization by the US State Department, the European Union and other governments. Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad has sworn to the destruction of Israel.
THE IRANIAN CONNECTION
Israel’s sworn enemy 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 that of Hamas, with longer-range rockets capable of striking 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 hit the area.
Although its base is in Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has leaders in Beirut and Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials.
Ziad al-Nakhalah, the group’s leader, was in Tehran to meet with Iranian officials when Israel began its operation in Gaza on Friday.
This is not the first time that 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 strike in 2019. His death was the first high-profile assassination of an Islamic Jihad figure by Israel since the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip.
Al-Jabari, 50, was a member of the Islamic Jihad’s “military council”, the group’s decision-making body in Gaza. He was responsible for Islamic Jihad 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 on Israel.
His death follows 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 operative 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 across multiple stints in Israeli prisons 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 in a fierce battle in the West Bank city of Jenin the same year.
“Once you hit the commanders, it will immediately affect the whole organization,” said Zvika Haimovich, the 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 waged four wars against Israel, often with the support of Islamic Jihad fighters. Aside from a flare-up earlier this year, the border has been largely calm since last year’s 11-day war and Hamas appears to be staying on the fringes of this current conflagration, which could prevent it from turn into total war.
Islamic Jihad militants have challenged Hamas by firing rockets, often without claiming responsibility, to increase its visibility among Palestinians while Hamas maintains the ceasefire. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket fire from Gaza.
Hamas must walk a tightrope between containing Islamic Jihad fire on Israel while avoiding Palestinian wrath if it cracks down on the group. As in past outbreaks, Hamas will have the final say on how long – and how violently – this round of fighting will last.
The current fighting 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 in the fall.
Interim leader Yair Lapid took over earlier this summer after the ideologically diverse government he helped form collapsed, triggering the new election.
Lapid, a centrist former television host and author, lacks the security knowledge that many Israelis consider essential to their leadership. His political fortunes could hinge on the current fighting, either gaining a boost if he can present 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 edge out former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who is on trial for corruption, in the next vote.
Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Emily Rose in Jerusalem contributed.