All eyes on Hamas as IDF awaits reprisal for assassination of Islamic Jihad leaders

Despite threatening statements, terror groups have yet to respond to deadly Israeli strikes on Gaza Strip; unclear if Islamic Jihad will act alone, or if Hamas will join

Emanuel Fabian

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

An Iron Dome air defense system is seen in central Israel, May 10, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
An Iron Dome air defense system is seen in central Israel, May 10, 2023. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

More than a day after the Israel Defense Forces launched an operation against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and assassinated three senior members in simultaneous airstrikes across the Gaza Strip, unusually the terror group had yet to respond.

Shortly after 2 a.m. on Tuesday, Israeli forces killed 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 Israel said directs Islamic Jihad terror activities in the West Bank from a base in Gaza. The separate strikes on the three took place within seconds, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

The airstrikes also left 10 civilians dead, including four children and four women, according to health officials in the Hamas-controlled territory. Islamic Jihad said the wives of the three commanders and a number of their children were among the dead.

Islamic Jihad, as well as the so-called Joint Operations Room of various Palestinian terror factions in the Gaza Strip — which includes both Hamas and Islamic Jihad — vowed a response. Hamas separately said Israel would see a unified response from terror groups that will “teach it a major lesson.”

Immediately after the strikes, the IDF’s Home Front Command imposed restrictions on movement and gatherings for people living within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Gaza, with officials assessing that a rocket barrage or other type of attack was only a matter of time.

Those fears had yet to materialize by late Wednesday morning, even after more than 30 hours since the deadly airstrikes. Previous strikes on Islamic Jihad leaders were answered within hours by barrages of rockets at Israeli civilians, some lasting several days.

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)

On Tuesday afternoon, Islamic Jihad did unsuccessfully attempt to carry out an attack, with the IDF saying a cell en route to carrying out an anti-tank guided missile attack on the Gaza border was struck, and two members were killed.

IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari assessed that the lack of an immediate response by Islamic Jihad, or Hamas, was due to the military’s surprise attack.

“We have not seen a rocket fired at Israel. This is a consequence of the IDF’s surprise action against Islamic Jihad,” Hagari told Army Radio on Wednesday morning.

“Anything else can happen today. We will assess the situation on whether to ease the instructions for the residents,” he added.

Some restrictions on areas further from the Gaza Strip may be lifted following assessments, although the instructions issued for residents living close to the border with the Palestinian enclave were expected to remain in place, over fears of anti-tank missile attacks or sniper fire.

Soldiers block a road near the border with Gaza, southern Israel, on May 10, 2023 (Flash90)

While Hamas vowed a “unified response,” it was still unclear if it would actually join Islamic Jihad in a reprisal attack, which could be a contributing factor to the unusually long delay in the response.

Israeli officials have stressed that the operation, dubbed Shield and Arrow, was focused solely on Islamic Jihad, but would target Hamas too should it join the fighting.

Hamas has remained on the sidelines of several previous conflicts between Israel and Islamic Jihad, helping keep them limited, and leading to some hopes that the terror group had matured into a non-violent political actor.

An explosion in Gaza, May 2, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

Still, Hamas also put its name to the umbrella group that claimed rocket fire earlier this month, though the IDF believed Islamic Jihad was largely behind the attacks. The ruling terror group was only involved in firing shoulder-launched missiles at Israeli jets during the fighting, which saw 104 projectiles fired at Israel in response to the death of an Islamic Jihad member who had been on hunger strike in Israeli prison.

Should Hamas — believed to have a larger and more advanced arsenal of weapons — join in with responding to the deadly Israeli strikes, the fighting is expected to last longer and be more intense than if Islamic Jihad were to respond alone.

Regardless, the IDF — in particular its air defense units, the Home Front Command, and various intelligence units — were remaining on high alert for any potential response, with or without Hamas.

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