Israel enters state of emergency after Palestinian militant's death

Palestinians inspecting the damaged house of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al Ata yesterday. He and his wife were killed by Israeli rockets that had zoomed in on their bedroom in the three-story house in Sadjaijah, Gaza. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESS
Palestinians inspecting the damaged house of Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al Ata yesterday. He and his wife were killed by Israeli rockets that had zoomed in on their bedroom in the three-story house in Sadjaijah, Gaza. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Israel yesterday entered a state of emergency, with the authorities expecting several days of fighting in the Gaza Strip after a high-ranking Palestinian Islamist was killed. It was a targeted action that Israel's army is well known for.

Rockets hit a specific bedroom in a three-story house in Sadjaijah, Gaza, killing Baha Abu al Ata, a commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), and his wife.

The explosions at 4am ended a relatively long ceasefire enjoyed by large parts of Israel. The PIJ promptly declared war on Israel, saying in an official communique: "We vow that our reaction will be as limitless as the crime of our enemy was severe."

Palestinians had fired more than 150 missiles before evening as air-raid sirens ripped through many Israel cities.

In Israel, some are wondering whether only operational considerations motivated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to give the green light for the targeted assassination, or whether he was pursuing political interests.

Army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus described Abu al Ata as "a ticking bomb" who was planning a major assault "with foot soldiers, snipers, mines, grenades, and missiles" in the immediate future. He said the commander could be prevented only by using deadly force.

The army had warned Abu al Ata for weeks through the media, but he ignored it, leaving "us no other option", he added.

Abu al Ata had been known to Israel's intelligence services for more than a decade. They hold him responsible for many attacks, some of which caused the deaths of Israelis.

In the past year, rocket volleys fired by his fighters had repeatedly violated a ceasefire that Israel agreed on with the radical Islamic Hamas that rules Gaza.

Abu al Ata's attacks also challenged Hamas' rule in the besieged strip by showing it failed to control him. Now, Israel has used a rare opportunity to eliminate Abu al Ata.

 
 
 

The opposition Blue and White party said Mr Netanyahu was motivated by political considerations, not concern for Israel's security, in ordering the attack.

Israel is trapped in one of the worst government crises in its history. Mr Netanyahu has not been able to form a coalition government after two elections this year.

For the first time in 10 years, an opposition leader has been given the mandate to form a government, and Mr Benny Gantz still has nine days to form a coalition. In the face of his dire prospects, he is allegedly considering forming a minority government with the support of Arab parties from the outside.

Bloody clashes with Palestinians in Gaza could quickly undermine this idea. Israel's Arab politicians categorically reject the use of force, even if in self-defence.

And as long as missiles keep raining on Israel's cities, even Mr Gantz's most liberal supporters are unlikely to favour an alliance, no matter how informal, with politicians who call Israeli soldiers murderers. He, however, does not seem to believe the conspiracy theories from his own camp. He supported the assassination, claiming he was informed of it ahead of time.

The political leadership and the army had "taken the right decision for the safety of Israeli citizens and residents of the south", the former chief of general staff tweeted.

If the past is to serve as a guide for the future, Israel and Gaza probably face several days of missile attacks and Israeli retaliation from the air.

But things could quickly spin out of control and evolve into a full-scale war should one of the strikes inadvertently kill civilians, or if the far more powerful Hamas decides to become involved in the fighting.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 13, 2019, with the headline 'Israel enters state of emergency after Palestinian militant's death'. Print Edition | Subscribe