IDF accuses Islamic Jihad of Gaza rocket fire, cuts fishing zone as punishment
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IDF accuses Islamic Jihad of Gaza rocket fire, cuts fishing zone as punishment

Army says long-range projectile, which landed off the coast Monday night, was an attempt by the Iran-backed terror group to derail ceasefire agreements

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Fighters from the Al-Quds Brigades, the Islamic Jihad terror group's military wing, take part in a military march in the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 15, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)
Fighters from the Al-Quds Brigades, the Islamic Jihad terror group's military wing, take part in a military march in the town of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on November 15, 2018. (Abed Rahim Khatib/ Flash90)

The Israeli military on Tuesday accused the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group of firing a rocket from the Gaza Strip that landed in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of Israel late Monday night.

In response, Israel scaled back Gaza’s permitted fishing zone from 15 nautical miles to six “until further notice,” Israel’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) liaison unit said.

The Israel Defense Forces said the Palestinian Islamic Jihad “intentionally fired” the rocket from the northern Gaza Strip in an effort to derail ongoing efforts to maintain a ceasefire between Israel and the terrorist groups in the coastal enclave.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad is considered the second-most powerful terror group in the Gaza Strip, after the coastal enclave’s de facto rulers, Hamas, despite having a slightly larger arsenal of rockets and mortar shells, mostly locally manufactured varieties based on Iranian designs.

The IDF specifically named Baha Abu al-Ata, an Islamic Jihad commander responsible for the group’s activities in northern Gaza, as having given the order to fire the rocket. The military said the rocket was fired from the al-Attra neighborhood of Beit Lahiya.

Identifying al-Ata by name can be seen as a tacit threat by the military. The IDF also tweeted out a photograph of the Islamic Jihad commander. Al-Ata has been targeted by the IDF in the past, both in the 2014 Gaza war and in the 2012 Operation Pillar of Defense.

The exact location of the rocket’s impact site cannot be published by order of the military censor as this could help terror groups in the Strip improve their aim in future attacks.

The military noted that the rocket launch came shortly before a potentially tense period, with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Israel’s Memorial Day and Independence Day and the first anniversary of the opening of the contentious American Embassy in Jerusalem all occurring in the coming weeks.

“On the eve of the blessed month of Ramadan, the terrorist Islamic Jihad movement is trying to drag you down paths no wants to go down,” the IDF’s Arabic-language spokesperson Maj. Avichay Adraee wrote in a tweet.

According to the IDF, al-Ata received his orders directly from the Islamic Jihad’s leader Ziad Nakhaleh, in Damascus. In the past, al-Ata has been described as Nakhaleh’s political rival.

Baha Abu al-Ata, right, and two other senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad members in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

In addition to the apparent threat directed at al-Ata, the IDF’s identification of Islamic Jihad as the source of the rocket fire appeared to be an effort to force the Gaza-ruling Hamas terror organization to bring the Iran-backed group under control.

According to the IDF, the Islamic Jihad is “trying to maintain a low profile so Hamas doesn’t know” that it’s seeking to undermine the ceasefire efforts, despite claims by the two groups that they are cooperating.

Earlier this month, the Israeli military made a similar allegation. On April 1, the IDF warned that the Islamic Jihad was planning to carry out a large-scale terror attack in order to derail the relative calm along the Gaza border.

Al-Ata was also implicated by the military in that plot and was reportedly behind a sniper attack on the border earlier this year, in which shots were fired at an IDF officer, who only survived because the bullet struck his helmet.

Last month, Israel and Hamas reached an unofficial Egyptian-brokered ceasefire agreement, under which terror groups in the Strip would scale back violence along the Gaza border in exchange for economic and humanitarian concessions by Israel.

In a tweet, Adraee said Monday night’s rocket launch came at a “time in which calm was restored to the Gaza Strip, in which tangible civilian measures that you all felt were undertaken and the other expected major measures were discussed.”

One of the first of these steps by Jerusalem was the expansion of the Gaza fishing zone from six nautical miles to 15 — a level that the coastal enclave has not seen in over a decade.

While there has not been a complete cessation of violence along the Gaza border since the ceasefire went into effect last month, the situation there has been relatively calm.

Terror groups in the Strip have threatened to bring back the regular border riots if Israel does not abide by its side of the deal.

Last week, a rocket fired from northern Gaza landed in an open field inside the Palestinian enclave, short of Israeli territory, without causing injuries or damage.

On Saturday, Israeli troops shot at three Palestinian men as they attempted to sabotage the border fence in the northern Gaza Strip, the army said. A military spokeswoman said the IDF opened fire at the group in accordance with standard procedure. She could not say whether any of the men were hit.

Also Saturday, arson balloons launched from Gaza sparked a fire at HaBesor Stream Nature Reserve in southern Israel, firefighting services said.

On Friday, dozens of Palestinians were injured in clashes with Israeli troops at various locations along the Gaza-Israel border.

Palestinian protesters use a makeshift shield during a demonstration near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip, on April 26, 2019. (Said KHATIB / AFP)

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry 60 people were wounded on Friday, including 36 who were shot by live fire.

The IDF had no comment on Friday’s injuries, but a spokeswoman said that approximately 7,000 Palestinians were taking part in the Hamas-led protests along the border. She said demonstrators “hurled rocks and a number of explosive devices” toward troops, and the IDF responded in accordance with standard procedures.

Adam Rasgon and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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