An Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip on Friday afternoon killed a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad member, the sixth since the latest round of hostilities began earlier this week.
The strike in the Gaza City neighborhood of Nasser that killed Iyad al-Hassani, along with another man the military said was his assistant, dealt yet another blow to the terror group and further dampened hopes for a ceasefire.
In a joint statement, the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security agency said al-Hassani was a top official in the group’s military council, in charge of its operations department. In recent days, he had also replaced the head of Islamic Jihad in northern Gaza, Khalil Bahtini, who was killed in an Israeli strike on Tuesday morning.
A spokesperson for Islamic Jihad confirmed al-Hassani’s death to AFP and other outlets.
According to the Hamas-run health ministry, another five people were wounded in the airstrike targeting the top floor of an apartment building.
“He was involved in all the decisions concerning the rocket fire and rocket barrages carried out by the group toward Israel,” the IDF said.
Speaking to reporters after the strike, IDF spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the military had identified al-Hassani traveling in several vehicles over the past day. “Our ability to track using aircraft has improved in the operation, giving us the ability to track [commanders] between apartments,” he said.
“What is important is that he received an appointment two days ago to replace Bahtini, after two days he is no longer with us, the most senior PIJ figure today in the Gaza Strip, managing combat, in contact with overseas [officials],” Hagari said.
Hagari said “the thing that affects [Islamic Jihad] the most is the targeted killings.”
“We are continuing as hard as we can in attacking those who are planning to launch rockets at us, while also keeping a strong defense,” he added.
Islamic Jihad was expected to respond to the latest targeted killing.
Hagari said there would likely be more long-range rocket fire after the assassination. “As has been the case in recent days, including today when two rockets flew toward Jerusalem and were intercepted, we could be met by such fire even in the coming hours,” he said.
More rockets, more strikes
The IDF renewed strikes on the coastal enclave just before noon Friday, after Islamic Jihad terrorists launched large barrages of mortars on communities near the Strip, and also fired long-range rockets toward the Jerusalem area for the first time in this round of fighting.
The rocket attacks shattered several hours of calm that had raised hopes overnight for a deal to end the hostilities, amid efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations to broker indirect talks.
Israel in response cut off talks for a ceasefire agreement with Islamic Jihad, Israeli officials said. Ceasefire efforts had at any rate been held up by Islamic Jihad’s demand that Israel permanently end assassinations, a proposal Jerusalem has rejected outright.
Israel generally avoids confirming ceasefire agreements with terror groups, but several previous rounds of fighting between the IDF and Gaza have come to a close with international mediation and indirect talks.
The IDF said it had carried out strikes on Friday against four Islamic Jihad command centers, used by the terror group’s rocket array to plan and carry out attacks on Israel. It also struck several underground rocket launchers and mortar launching positions across Gaza.
Meanwhile, the IDF extended restrictions on movement and gathering for residents living up to 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the Gaza Strip, to Saturday at 8 p.m. The IDF said the extension of the restrictions came following an assessment held by military officials, following renewed rocket fire from Gaza at Israel.
The Home Front Command rules mandated school closures, work closures — unless employees have a bomb-safe room they can reach in time — and limited outdoor gatherings to no more than 10 people.
Indoor gatherings in towns near the Gaza border were restricted to 50 people, while those up to 40 kilometers from the border with the Strip were limited to 100 people.
Additionally, special education schools were permitted to operate, provided there is a bomb-safe room that school kids and teachers can reach in time.
Four days of fighting
This week’s clash began after Israel launched Operation Shield and Arrow with simultaneous airstrikes early Tuesday that killed three Islamic Jihad commanders along with some of their wives and children as they slept in their homes. Israel said it was retaliating for a barrage of rocket fire launched last week by Islamic Jihad following the death of one of its West Bank members, Khader Adnan, from a hunger strike while in Israeli custody.
Talks were also set back on Thursday after Israel assassinated the commander of Islamic Jihad’s rocket division and his deputy. That came before a rocket slammed into a Rehovot home, killing an Israeli woman — the country’s first fatality in the current conflict.
At least 33 people in Gaza have been killed since Israel launched the offensive, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, and at least 111 more injured.
Military officials have said Israel has killed at least 18 terror operatives but admit the IDF was responsible for the deaths of 10 civilians during the initial strikes, which destroyed residential structures where families were sleeping. Officials believe some Gaza civilians have been killed by Palestinian rocket misfires.
Gazan fighters, who only began firing rockets in response to the bombing on Wednesday afternoon, launched at least 937 projectiles during the conflict, as of Friday afternoon.
According to the military, at least 761 of the projectiles crossed the border, while 181 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 296 of the rockets, marking a 91% interception rate of projectiles heading for populated areas. Several rockets have landed within towns, killing one and injuring several others, as well as causing extensive damage.
The rest landed in open areas without causing damage, according to the IDF. Most rockets targeted towns in southern Israel, but some reached as far north as Tel Aviv.
The military also said it had carried out strikes against 254 targets belonging to Islamic Jihad during the campaign.
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.
A senior security official warned that as the fighting continues, the chances of Hamas joining the fray grow.
“The rope we’re walking on will be even thinner and the odds grow. We’re ready for the possibility,” the unnamed source told the Ynet news site.
Another Israeli official said the assassinations of top Islamic Jihad members send “a message” to other terror groups such as Hamas, in an apparent warning to the Gaza Strip’s rulers.
“The high-quality targeted killings that harm the PIJ’s chain of command are also a message to Hamas and other terror organizations that threaten to harm Israel,” the official said in a statement to reporters.
Hagari stressed on Friday that the campaign was still focused on Islamic Jihad, as it has been the terror group leading the rocket fire on Israel. “I have seen statements about what Hamas is doing. [it’s] not involved in the fighting, not taking part, not assisting logistically, and therefore we are focusing on the one who is trying to harm us, the PIJ,” he said.
Meanwhile, an official in the Hamas government in Gaza warned Friday that Gaza’s only power plant was running out of fuel, and would need to stop operating if it does not get new supplies from Israel through the Kerem Shalom Crossing in the next 72 hours.
“We warn against the continued closure of the crossings and preventing the entry of fuel needed for the power plant, as the station’s management was forced to stop one of the three power-generating turbines to prolong its operation, as it is expected to stop completely within 72 hours,” Salama Maarouf said.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.