Israel has sent a message to Palestinian groups warning them that any attack to mark the anniversary of the killing of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander last year will be met with the assassination of terror leaders, a UK-based Arabic newspaper reported on Thursday.
According to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, the message was sent to both the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups, warning them that the firing of rockets or any other form of attack against Israel will elicit a harsh response.
The report comes amid concerns of a possible attack on Israelis living in the West Bank or in communities surrounding the Gaza Strip to mark the one-year anniversary of the killing of Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata Thursday.
Israel only rarely carries out targeted killings of Palestinian terror leaders, but both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have hinted in the past few months at a possible return to the policy during recent spates of attacks.
The Israel Defense Forces went on heightened alert on Wednesday, ahead of the anniversary, sending additional air defenses to southern Israel. Additionally, flights into and out of Israel appeared to have been directed to use Ben Gurion International Airport’s northern paths, keeping them farther from the Gaza Strip.
These changes in air traffic routes — visible with civilian flight path tracking software — are generally seen when there is active fighting or expectations of it. A spokesperson for the Israel Airports Authority did not respond to a request for comment on the matter.
Israel killed Abu al-Ata in an airstrike in Gaza early on the morning of November 12, 2019, sparking a day of fierce fighting, including rocket attacks on central Israel.
This week also marks the anniversary of an IDF intelligence operation that went awry on November 11, 2018, leading to a large exchange of fire between Israel and terror groups in the Strip in which an Israeli officer was killed, as well as a major, week-long campaign against Hamas in November 2012, known as Operation Pillar of Defense.
Abu al-Ata was the commander of Islamic Jihad’s Al-Quds Brigades’ units in the northern Gaza Strip. The IDF believed he was personally responsible for many attacks against Israel in the months before he was killed.
He was killed, along with his wife, in a precision missile strike on the apartment in which he was staying in Gaza City’s Shejaiya neighborhood, following months of preparation by the military.
Palestinian terror groups have been known to carry out attacks on the anniversaries of such conflicts, though Israel-Gaza tensions have mostly been tamped down over the last several months.
Israel is involved in ongoing talks with the Hamas terror group regarding a long-term ceasefire agreement, though a number of recent incidents have threatened to upend the shaky calm along the Gaza-Israel frontier.
Last week, a drone was flown from the Strip into Israeli airspace before it was brought down by the Israeli military. The week before saw a rocket attack from the Strip, aimed at the Israeli city of Ashkelon. One projectile was intercepted, the other landed in an open field.
Last month, the IDF also uncovered what it said was a Hamas attack tunnel dug from Gaza into Israel.
While smaller than Hamas, which maintains a de facto grip over Gaza, the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad is thought to have thousands of missiles in its arsenal, including some that can reach deep into Israel.
Israel has fought three large campaigns against terror groups in the Strip since Hamas took control of the area in 2007, along with dozens of smaller exchanges of fire.
Egypt has played a key role in downplaying tensions, but unnamed sources told Al-Araby Al-Jadeed that Cairo was considering taking a backseat, with the report citing unnamed officials saying Hamas was showing a “deliberate disregard” for Cairo’s role, as ties grew closer with Qatar due to the Gulf nation’s regular injections of cash into the Strip.
The report noted that sources believed Cairo had better relations with Palestinian Islamic Jihad than it did with Hamas, but despite discontent with the state of relations with the Gaza-ruling terror group, Egypt was still determined to represent its interests by preventing the outbreak of further violence.