Gaza strike kills deputy commander of Islamic Jihad rocket forces, after chief slain

Military says it waited 2 days before targeting Ahmad Abu Deka because of ‘human shields’; terror group expected to respond; Israel vows to continue targeted assassinations

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

Ahmad Abu Deka (left), the deputy commander of Islamic Jihad's rocket forces (Courtesy); Abu Deka's home after a strike by Israel on May 10, 2023 in the Gaza Strip. (SAID KHATIB/AFP).
Ahmad Abu Deka (left), the deputy commander of Islamic Jihad's rocket forces (Courtesy); Abu Deka's home after a strike by Israel on May 10, 2023 in the Gaza Strip. (SAID KHATIB/AFP).

An Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Thursday afternoon killed a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad member, dealing another blow to the group in the latest round of hostilities and further dampening hopes for a ceasefire.

The airstrike in the southern Gaza town of Bani Suheila, near Khan Younis, killed Ahmad Abu Deka, the deputy commander of Islamic Jihad’s rocket forces, the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security agency said in a statement.

Abu Deka was the deputy of Ali Ghali, the head of the Islamic Jihad rocket forces, who was killed in a separate Israeli strike early Thursday morning.

The IDF said Abu Deka “had a significant role in commanding and carrying out the rocket barrages toward Israel” over the past day.

The Hamas-run health ministry in the Gaza Strip said that in addition to Abu Deka, another four were wounded in the Israeli airstrike. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad also confirmed Abu Deka’s death, saying he was killed in a “cowardly Zionist assassination.”

Speaking to reporters after the latest airstrike, the head of the IDF Southern Command, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Toledano, said the military would continue with targeted killings of members of Islamic Jihad.

A plume of smoke rises above buildings in Gaza City during an Israeli airstrike on May 11, 2023. (MOHAMMED ABED/AFP)

“We started with the [senior] command in the opening strike. From there we continued for a second attack last night where we killed the head of the rocket array. And now we killed his deputy,” Toledano said.

Operation Shield and Arrow, as it is known in the military, was launched early Tuesday with the killing of three top Islamic Jihad commanders in the wake of rocket fire from Gaza earlier this month.

Toledano said both Ghali and Abu Deka were “responsible for the rockets” during the current escalation, as well as over the past few years.

“The important idea is to reach those people who make use of human shields to protect themselves from us, and conduct fighting from urban areas,” Toledano said.

“There is very impressive work here by our intelligence, with an emphasis on the Shin Bet, and extraordinary work by the Air Force,” he added.

IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagarai added to reporters that the military had been watching Abu Deka for two days before targeting him.

“We were waiting for him to be separated from the family he used as a human shield,” Hagari said.

The military released footage showing the building Abu Deka was in being targeted in the Israeli Air Force strike.

Islamic Jihad was widely expected to respond to the two most recent targeted killings.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, issued a warning to Islamic Jihad.

“This morning we targeted the commander of Islamic Jihad’s missile array in Gaza. Now, just an hour ago, we targeted his deputy as well,” said Netanyahu during a visit to a military base housing the David’s Sling air defense system.

“I have already said, anyone who comes to harm us — their blood will be on their heads, including anyone who replaces them,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu was visiting the operators of the medium-range David’s Sling missile defense system that was successfully used for the first time to down a missile over Tel Aviv on Wednesday.

Netanyahu praised the team, saying they were doing “sacred work” to defend Israel’s skies and citizens.

“We will continue to act defensively and offensively until the end of the campaign,” he said.

This photo (left) released by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad shows Ali Ghali, the commander of the terror group’s rocket forces. Ghali was killed in an Israeli strike on an building (right) in the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis on May 11, 2023. (Courtesy; SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Meanwhile Thursday afternoon, the IDF said it struck an Islamic Jihad attack tunnel that was dug up to Israel’s security barrier with the Gaza Strip.

The IDF said the tunnel was established under the orders of Khaled Mansour, the former commander of the terror group in southern Gaza until he was killed in an Israeli strike last August.

The Mujahideen Brigades — a relatively small armed faction in the Gaza Strip, and is somewhat allied with the coastal enclave’s rulers, Hamas — said two of its members have been killed in an Israeli airstrike near the Gaza City neighborhood of Shuja’iyya earlier.

The terror group said the two members were involved in launching rockets at Israel when they were targeted.

The Hamas-run health ministry said another two were wounded in the strike.

As of Thursday afternoon, the IDF said Palestinians in Gaza had launched 547 rockets and mortar shells at Israel. According to the military, at least 394 of the projectiles crossed the border, while 124 fell short in Gaza — with some of them believed to have killed four Palestinians.

The IDF said air defense systems — Iron Dome and the medium-range David’s Sling — intercepted 175 of the rockets, marking a 95 percent interception rate of projectiles heading for populated areas, while a handful landed in urban areas, causing damage.

The military also said it had carried out strikes against 166 targets belonging to Islamic Jihad during the campaign.

Israeli officials on Thursday said Israel was in talks with Arab countries on a potential ceasefire to end the fighting with the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in the Gaza Strip, but denied reports claiming Israel would agree to a number of controversial concessions.

According to the Saudi-based Al-Arabiya network, Israel had agreed to a ceasefire with Islamic Jihad and promised to halt targeted assassinations of the terror group’s members unless it has information about a specific planned attack.

The report also said Israel had agreed to hand over the body of Khader Adnan, an Islamic Jihad member who died in Israeli prison earlier this month after an 86-day hunger strike. His death sparked a brief flareup in violence last week, with Islamic Jihad launching over 100 rockets at Israel.

An Israeli diplomatic official responded to the report, saying Israel was refusing to hand over Adnan’s body as part of any ceasefire agreement. And a senior Israeli defense official said, “Israel has not committed to stopping the targeted killings of terror elements.”

Trails of smoke are seen as rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in the southern Gaza Strip, on May 10, 2023. (Abed Rahim Khatib/Flash90)

The rocket attacks on Thursday were largely focused on Israeli towns close to the border with the Gaza Strip. Several mortars landed near homes, including one that caused heavy damage to a chicken coop. Later on Thursday, several rockets were launched toward central Israel, including one that landed in a residential area of Rehovot, causing extensive damage and injuries.

The IDF responded with a series of airstrikes against Islamic Jihad targets, including mortar launching positions and command centers.

Rocket attacks on Wednesday caused damage in several southern cities, including Sderot, Ashkelon, Netivot, and Beersheba. The rocket fire has reached as far as Tel Aviv.

Over 30 people have sought treatment for wounds suffered as they tried to reach shelter, or because of acute anxiety from nearby impacts.

Security restrictions in southern Israel remained in place, including rules mandating school closures within 40 kilometers (25 miles) of Gaza and limiting outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 people.

At least 28 people in Gaza have been killed since Israel launched the surprise offensive on Tuesday morning, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, and 76 more injured. The figure includes both terrorists targeted by Israel and civilians, as well as civilians believed killed by Islamic Jihad rocket misfires, according to Israeli officials.

Israeli officials have insisted that they are keeping the fight limited to Islamic Jihad and not the larger and better-armed Hamas terror group, which rules the Strip, hoping to avoid widening the conflict, while warning that it is prepared to do so if fired upon.

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