Netanyahu: 'I advise our enemies: Don’t mess with us'

2 killed in fresh Israeli airstrikes as Islamic Jihad vows to avenge slain leaders

Military says men targeted were operatives in terror group who were en route to carry out a guided missile attack on the Gaza border

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

The puported scene of an Israeli airstrike against a Palestinain anti-tank guided missile squad near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, May 9, 2023. (Social media: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)
The puported scene of an Israeli airstrike against a Palestinain anti-tank guided missile squad near Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip, May 9, 2023. (Social media: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

A Palestinian Islamic Jihad squad in the Gaza Strip that sought to carry out an anti-tank guided missile attack against targets on the Israeli border was targeted in an airstrike on Tuesday afternoon, according to the military.

The Israel Defense Forces said it carried out the airstrike against the squad near the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, as its members were taking missiles by car to a launch site.

“IDF soldiers monitored the activity of the squad and struck it while they were on their way to the launch pad,” the military said.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip said two men were killed and two were wounded in the strike. They were not immediately named. The strike brought the death toll since the military launched its operation against Islamic Jihad early Tuesday morning to 15.

Images published by media outlets showed a burnt-out car after the attack. The IDF published drone footage of the strike.

Shortly after, Palestinian media outlets reported a second airstrike against a “resistance site” in central Gaza. The IDF did not immediately comment on the reports.

The strikes came as Islamic Jihad was seeking to carry out reprisal attacks against Israel, after the IDF assassinated three senior members of the terror group in a series of strikes early Tuesday morning.

Earlier in the day, the IDF blocked access to some roads running near the enclave, over fears of anti-tank missile fire or sniper attacks.

The airstrikes in the pre-dawn hours came days after a short-lived but fiery flareup of violence set the restive region on edge. Islamic Jihad fired 104 rockets toward Israel on May 2 and 3, in response to the death of a member of the group who had been on hunger strike in Israeli prison.

Hamas health officials said 13 people were killed in the bombing runs early Tuesday. Islamic Jihad said the wives of the three commanders and a number of their children were among the dead. Some 20 people were reported injured in the strikes.

Israeli residents of areas within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Gaza were instructed to enter or stay near bomb shelters amid fears of reprisal attacks.

Previous strikes on Islamic Jihad leaders have been answered with barrages of rockets on Israeli civilians and intense battles with Israeli troops, some lasting several days.

The IDF said it assassinated Khalil Bahtini, who commands Islamic Jihad in northern Gaza; Jihad Ghanem, a top official in the group’s military council; and Tareq Izz ed-Din, who it said directed Islamic Jihad terror activities in the West Bank from a base in Gaza.

From left: Islamic Jihad commanders that the IDF said it killed in Gaza, May 9, 2023: Khalil Bahtini, Tareq Izz ed-Din, and Jihad Ghanem (IDF Spokesman)

Islamic Jihad confirmed that the three were among the dead. The spokesman for the terror group’s military wing later vowed to respond to their deaths in a video statement.

“The Al-Quds Brigades and the resistance affirms we will abide by our commitment and duty toward the martyrs, and will confront the aggression with steadfastness and courage,” said the spokesman, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Hamza.

The so-called Joint Operations Room of various Palestinian terror factions in the Gaza Strip, which includes both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, said Israel and its leaders would “pay the price” for the deadly airstrikes.

The damage to a building following Israeli airstrikes on an apartment of an Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza City, Tuesday, May 9, 2023. (AP Photo/Fatima Shbair)

The army dubbed the campaign Operation Shield and Arrow.

Islamic Jihad had yet to successfully respond as of 6 p.m., likely a result of Israel catching the group off-guard, though the coming hours were likely to see intense volleys at Israeli cities.

The IDF’s Home Front Command gave the go-ahead for towns bordering Gaza to begin evacuating residents to other parts of the country, with the military estimating that fighting could last several days.

The Shaar Hanegev Regional Council said dozens of families had already left their communities by Tuesday afternoon, amid fears of rocket fire. By the end of the day, over 200 families were expected to leave to be hosted in towns in central, southern, and northern Israel, the council said.

Anticipating a spiraling conflict lasting several days at least, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant okayed the army to call up reserve troops as needed. The IDF was to call up several hundred reservists in the coming day, mostly in the Air Force, Southern Command, and intelligence units.

“We must be prepared for any scenario, including a prolonged campaign with an extended range of fire,” Gallant told mayors and community leaders in southern Israel, according to a readout provided by his office.

Batteries of Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system in southern Israel on May 9, 2023, following early morning Israeli air strikes on Gaza. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convened his high-level security cabinet on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the conflict.

In prepared remarks at the start of the meeting, Netanyahu said Israel was “ready for any possibility” as it geared for an expected response to the deadly airstrikes.

“We are in the middle of a campaign and we are ready for any possibility. I advise our enemies: Don’t mess with us,” he said.

Netanyahu has come under pressure from hardliners in his cabinet for a harsher response to Gazan rockets, as well as to take offensive measures rather than only reacting to attacks.

Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara authorized Netanyahu to carry out the Gaza strikes without first convening his cabinet.

A statement from Baharav-Miara’s office said that “after the AG was presented with the relevant assessments of the security forces, that AG found that in accordance with the law there was no need to convene the cabinet in order to carry out a military operation.”

Netanyahu has been loath to convene the cabinet over security issues, fearing the influence of several far-right ministers could push Israel into a wider conflict.

Hebrew-language media reports also say Netanyahu feared leaks from other ministers, particularly National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir.

A fire breaks out at an apartment following an explosion in Gaza City on May 9, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Since pulling out of the Strip in 2005, Israel has fought two major ground wars with Gaza, as well as two air wars lasting at least a week and dozens of more limited clashes. Gaza terrorists, led by Hamas, are thought to possess tens of thousands of rockets that can hit anywhere in the country.

The airstrikes are similar to one in August 2022 in which Israel bombed places housing commanders of Islamic Jihad, setting off a three-day blitz of rocket salvos and reprisal attacks. Israel said at the time that the initial attack was spurred by concrete threats of an imminent attack.

Hamas remained on the sidelines of that conflict, likely helping keep it limited, and leading to some hopes that the terror group had matured into a non-violent political actor. Hamas put its name to the umbrella group that claimed the rocket fire earlier this month, though it’s unclear how active a role it took in the clash or how active a role it will take in any reprisal Tuesday.

In a statement, Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh warned Tuesday that Israel “will pay the price” and that “resistance” would be unified, but a separate condemnation from the group at large did not contain any such threat.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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