TEL AVIV, Israel – Israel’s assassination of a top military commander in the Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza on Friday raised concerns that the conflict could escalate into an all-out war in the territory that is home to 2 million Palestinians.
Israel launched a series of airstrikes in an operation known as “Breaking Dawn" that killed Islamic Jihad military commander Tayseer Jabari, who was suspected in several terror attacks against Israel, a country roughly the size of New Jersey.
Israel and the Palestinian Health Ministry both said 10 people were killed. The Israeli government said they were terrorists. The Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza said a 5-year-old girl was among the fatalities.
Tensions escalate: Islamic Jihad responded to the assassination of its military commander by firing more than 100 missiles at Israel. The Israeli military said operation Breaking Dawn will continue.
Young victim identified: The 5-year-old Palestinian girl killed in the airstrikes was identified as Alla Qadoom, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Islamic Jihad responds: Islamic Jihad leader Ziad al-Nakhala issued a statement after the killing of Jabari: "This is a day destined for victory, and the enemy must understand that there will be a war without surrender. ... The resistance fighters must stand as one. We have no red lines, and there is no room to stop."
Israeli leaders respond: A joint statement by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Defense Minister Benny Gantz after the operation was launched said, "The Israeli government will not allow terrorist organizations to set the agenda in towns near the Gaza Strip and threaten the citizens of Israel. Anyone who seeks harm to Israel must know that we will get to them. Security forces will act against Islamic Jihad terrorists to remove the threat from the citizens of Israel."
Israel has been on high alert along the Gaza border since Tuesday morning after the military arrested Islamic Jihad commander Bassam al-Saadi in Jenin in the West Bank.
The assessment in the military was that Islamic Jihad planned an imminent attack in retaliation, leading authorities to close roads near the Gaza border on Tuesday until Friday.
Hamas runs the Gaza Strip, and Israel normally holds the organization responsible for violence coming from the enclave. The war in Gaza last year was mainly between Israel and Hamas; the current operation targets Islamic Jihad, which is more extreme than Hamas.
Hamas portrayed itself as the protector of Palestinians in the war last year, increasing its popularity among Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
All border crossings have been shut, preventing thousands of Gazans from entering Israel to work every day, as well as goods from coming into the Strip.
Islamic Jihad’s military capability is weaker than Hamas', but it operates in Gaza and the West Bank. Its leader, al-Nakhala, met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran this week. Iran has supported Islamic Jihad financially and militarily for years.
Why it matters
The strike could have major repercussions, including on already-fraught efforts to negotiate a deal with Iran to get it to stop trying to make nuclear weapons.
Islamic Jihad is a proxy fighting force for Iran, which has long considered influence in the Palestinian territories a major priority, given their proximity to Israel, Iran's No. 1 enemy.
The group was active in terror attacks against Israel beginning in May, along with Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups, said Yoram Schweitzer, a former top Israeli intelligence official who is director of the Terrorism and Low-Intensity Conflict program at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
In response, Israel conducted aggressive counterterror operations, including within refugee camps in Jenin and Nablus, Schweitzer told USA TODAY. Monday, it swept through the Jenin camp, north of the occupied West Bank, the heart of Palestinian armed resistance to Israel, exchanging gunfire with militants.
Israeli forces arrested al-Saadi, one of the leaders of Islamic Jihad in the West Bank, and brought him back to Israel, Schweitzer said.
That ratcheted up tensions, and the Islamic Jihad accelerated its attempts to launch operations from Gaza, Schweitzer said, citing “concrete” Israeli intelligence.
Israel upped its readiness and put areas in the southern part of the territory under curfew. After two days, it went on the offensive after learning of plans to attack Israeli targets and after a few Islamic Jihad cells tried to launch rockets toward Israel, Schweitzer said.
Israel’s aggressive response is meant as a warning to Tehran and to Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of an even more powerful Iranian proxy in the region, Hezbollah.
“The whole campaign is intended to send a clear message to Nasrallah, who has also been threatening Israel in the last few weeks,” Schweitzer said. “They are all watching," including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s most potent military force, which Israel suspects of providing intelligence to Islamic Jihad to help it launch attacks.
How important was Jabari?
According to the Israeli military, Jabari was a senior commander who held a number of positions in Islamic Jihad, including head of operations. He was responsible for anti-tank missile and sniper attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilians and fired rockets at Israel during the Gaza war in 2021.
Jabari replaced Baha Abu al-Ata as the commanding officer of Islamic Jihad's Gaza division after al-Ata was killed in an Israeli airstrike in 2019.
Why would Islamic Jihad attack Israel now?
Israel has arrested or killed Islamic Jihad members in the West Bank, including the arrest of its senior member on Tuesday morning.
Islamic Jihad is an independent entity, but it's subordinate to Hamas. Hamas could try to lower the flames by arresting Islamic Jihad members, which could lead to infighting.
Hamas is too strong for Islamic Jihad to topple. On the other hand, Hamas could feel pressure to join Islamic Jihad to show Palestinians that it supports their fight against Israel.
Impact on US-Israel relations
If casualties approach the same level as those in last year's war in Gaza, the Biden administration could put pressure on Israel, Egypt and Qatar to reach a cease-fire.
What they're saying
"I know the building that was hit very well," Gaza resident Najla Shawa told USA TODAY. "It's a residential building, and it even has some offices there. I pass by there every day. It's crazy."
"When I heard the huge explosion of the airstrike, I got scared and shouted at my kids to leave our apartment," said Samah Abu Ramadan, 39, a mother of four from Gaza. "I did not know that our building was the targeted place. I did not know what to do, so I stayed for 15 minutes near the door to the apartment until the rescue teams came and evacuated us from the building. I cannot go back to our home because I don’t feel it’s secure enough for me and my kids."
"As a citizen of southern Israel, I support the actions of the Israeli military today," Alex Kushnir, an Israeli lawmaker from the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu, told USA TODAY. "The situation where terrorist organizations can threaten Israeli citizens cannot be continued."
“Hamas will not wish to be led blind by Islamic Jihad," said Efraim Halevy, former chief of Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. "It is too early to speculate, and a lot will depend on the retaliation Islamic Jihad will try to carry out. They have much to loose.”
“The United States firmly believes that Israel has a right to protect itself," Tom Nides, U.S. ambassador to Israel, said in a statement. "We are engaging with different parties and urge all sides for calm.“
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Contributing: Josh Meyer and Michael Collins
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israel vs. Islamic Jihad: Could conflict in Gaza lead to all-out war?