Hamas has warned Israel against assassinating any of the terror group’s leaders, saying the immediate response would be a rocket barrage on Tel Aviv, Hebrew media reported Thursday citing the Lebanese Al-Akhbar newspaper.
Hamas sources told the pro-Hezbollah paper that it notified Israel, via intermediaries, that if the military carried out targeted killings of its leaders or took any “physical measures,” the group would immediately launch missiles at the central Israeli city, the second most populous in the country.
Hamas — which controls the Gaza Strip, has fought three major conflicts against Israel, and fired thousands of rockets across the border — also warned that it was not afraid of going to war before or after the coming Israeli elections on March 2.
The group, which seized control of Gaza from the Palestinian Authority in 2007, has in the past fired rocket barrages at Tel Aviv and the surrounding area. Some of the rockets were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-missile system while others hit, causing damage and injuries.
On Tuesday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military was planning a “big surprise” for Hamas if the terrorist group failed to rein in violence aimed at southern Israel, amid reports that Israel was contemplating the assassination of two senior Hamas leaders.
The south has seen weeks of tension and unrest along the Gaza border, with dozens of balloons carrying explosive and incendiary devices being launched some days, as well as rocket and mortar fire from the Strip.
In a pre-election interview with Army Radio, Netanyahu said: “Hamas and the other terrorist organizations such as [Palestinian] Islamic Jihad, whose commander [Baha Abu al-Ata] we eliminated a few weeks ago, have to understand that either there is complete quiet and they rein in the rogue factions — shoot them in the knees, that’s the way — or we will have no choice but to launch our operational programs. I can’t share what they are, but I can say it will be a big surprise.”
The prime minister said he would not subject any decision on Gaza to “political timetables,” with the March 2 election less than two weeks away, adding that he would “choose the right time to take action.”
Also Tuesday, the London-based pan-Arab website Al-Araby Al-Jadeed reported that an Egyptian intelligence delegation that visited the Gaza Strip did so after receiving information that Israel was planning to assassinate two prominent Hamas figures.
The website said it had been told by sources that Cairo had persuaded Israel to suspend a decision to assassinate Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Marwan Issa, the leader of its military wing, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades.
According to the sources, Israel holds Sinwar and Issa responsible for the recent escalation of hostilities in the Gaza Strip.The Egyptian security delegation is reported to have met with Israeli security officials prior to traveling to Gaza and is said to have warned against the consequences of assassinating Sinwar and Issa, noting the uptick in violence when Israel eliminated Baha Abu al-Ata, the commander of the Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of Islamic Jihad, last November.
Islamic Jihad fired some 400 rockets at Israel over a 48-hour period in response to that assassination. As the rocket fire began the Israel Defense Forces ordered schools closed in southern and central Israel, including the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.
According to the IDF, Abu al-Ata was planning to carry out rocket attacks and other terrorist activities against Israel and was also directly responsible for several cases of rocket fire over the previous six months.
No Israelis have been injured physically by the latest round of rocket and airborne explosives, though some have raised concerns of the potential psychological damage caused by this extended period of tension and violence, which began some two years ago with a series of violent protests along the Gaza border.
In response to the attacks, the Israel Defense Forces has conducted strikes on Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip, which have not injured Palestinians.
Although there have been no rockets fired at Israel in the past few days, airborne bomb attacks have continued and on Wednesday an Islamic Jihad sniper fired at Israel Defense Forces operating along the the Gaza border, causing no injuries.
The targeted killing of a Palestinian leader in Gaza is a rare event.
In May 2019, during the most serious flareup in recent years, when Palestinian terrorists fired more than 700 rockets into Israel, the IAF killed Hamed Hamdan al-Khodari, who it said was responsible for funneling money from Iran to Gaza terror groups.
Israel and Gaza have engaged in several sporadic rounds of violence over the last two years as the sides attempted to reach a long-term ceasefire.
The last major conflict between the two sides was during a fifty-day clash in 2014, dubbed by the IDF as Operation Protective Edge. During the fighting Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups in Gaza launched thousands of rockets at Israel, including at Tel Aviv and other central regions of the country.