Operation Black Belt was a departure from previous rounds of fighting in Gaza

The pattern was familiar, but the threat to central Israel was greater; the Palestinian death toll higher, with more civilians; and the cast of characters was markedly different

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An Israeli missile launched from the Iron Dome defense missile system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on November 12, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
An Israeli missile launched from the Iron Dome defense missile system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, on November 12, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

The 48-hour battle between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group last week, dubbed Operation Black Belt, stuck to a well-worn script: An inciting incident — in this case, the elimination of Islamic Jihad terror leader Baha Abu al-Ata by Israel — prompted a significant response in the form of rockets and mortar shells fired at Israel, which triggered retaliatory strikes by the Israel Defense Forces.

Leaders on both sides blustered and thumped their chests as civilians took cover from the assaults. The Egyptian military and the United Nations began meeting with Israel and Palestinian terror groups to reach a ceasefire. Both sides said they didn’t need a ceasefire and were prepared to continue fighting.

Hours later, initial unsourced reports emerged of a possible ceasefire, followed a short time after that with an anonymous Israeli official telling Israeli news outlets that “quiet will be met with quiet.” A ceasefire was officially announced. That ceasefire was violated by Palestinian terrorists firing rockets at Israel. A tense calm took hold. And, finally, both sides boasted of their victories in the battle.

A man looks at the damage to a house in Sderot, Israel, after it was hit by a rocket fired from Gaza Strip, November 12, 2019. (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

It is, unfortunately, a familiar series of events for Israelis and Gazans, who have lived through similar exchanges over the past two years — at least eight of them since May 2018.

However, last week’s two-day battle had some markedly different characteristics from the previous conflicts between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, some of which may indicate a change in tactics, if not larger strategies, that will continue into the future.

This round of fighting featured a return of so-called “targeted killings” by the IDF with the overt threat of more to come; a larger threat on central Israel; a new primary enemy in the Islamic Jihad and a strange bedfellow in Hamas; and a significantly higher Palestinian death toll, especially in terms of civilians.

The conflict kicked off with the assassination of Abu al-Ata — described by Israel as the “prime instigator” of terrorism from Gaza over the past year — in the predawn hours of Tuesday morning, calling to mind a similar occurrence almost exactly seven years ago, when the IDF killed Ahmed Jabari, chief of Hamas’s military wing in Gaza, in an airstrike on November 14, 2012, sparking an eight-day conflict known in Israel as Operation Pillar of Defense.

The home of Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu Al-Ata after it was hit in an Israeli strike in Gaza City on November 12, 2019. (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

While Israel once relied heavily on such targeted killings, the practice has fallen out of use in recent years. It was used in May in the assassination of a money-changer, Hamed al-Khudari, whom the IDF said funneled large amounts of cash from Iran to terror groups in the coastal enclave, though this was in the middle of an existing conflict. Its use on Tuesday and Israeli officials’ insistence make it clear that assassinations have firmly returned to the IDF’s toolbox.

Shortly after Abu al-Ata was killed, Islamic Jihad began launching rockets at Israel, first at cities in the south of the country and after a few hours at the Tel Aviv metropolitan area.

A woman hugs her dog moments after a rocket fired by Palestinians terrorists in the Gaza Strip hit a main highway between near Ashdod, Israel, November 12, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

Sirens sounded in Tel Aviv and its suburbs two more times on Tuesday morning, leading the IDF Home Front Command to call for the closure of the area’s schools and non-essential businesses in Israel’s financial capital — the first time that has happened since the 1990 Gulf War.

According to the Haaretz daily, the IDF had made the decision in light of an intelligence assessment that Islamic Jihad planned to carry out a massive rocket attack on Tel Aviv around the time that most residents would be heading to school or work.

Though an hour and a half later, at 9:40 a.m., the military allowed businesses to reopen, the decision was a significant blow to Israel and a major coup for Islamic Jihad.

Israelis inspect a crater left by a new Islamic Jihad rocket in southern Israel in November 2019 (Screen capture/Channel 12)

In addition to an extended range, Islamic Jihad also used new varieties of rockets with a larger warhead, one of which exploded in an open field in southern Israel, causing a massive crater.

Though the Israeli military says it is capable of confronting these short-range heavy rockets, a 16-meter-wide (52 feet) and 2-meter-deep (6 feet) hole in the ground in Israel demonstrates the threat still posed by these projectiles.

A new-old enemy

This week’s fight was far from the first time that the Israeli military has done battle with the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad, which was formed in 1981.

However, in recent years, following Hamas’s violent takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007, Israel has generally held Hamas responsible for any violence emanating from the enclave regardless of its source, bombing headquarters, bases and infrastructure belonging to the Gaza-ruling terror group in retaliation for attacks by Islamic Jihad and others.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists attend the funeral of a fellow fighter in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip November 14, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

The military believed that by making Hamas pay the price for others’ crimes, it would force it to rein in the other terror groups in the Strip.

While there have been cases of the IDF also targeting Islamic Jihad or other terror groups, last week’s battle was unique in being only against Islamic Jihad — and decidedly not against Hamas.

Throughout the fighting, Israel sent repeated messages to Hamas — in the media and through third parties — calling on the group to keep out of the fighting and saying in exchange the IDF would refrain from targeting it in airstrikes.

The Izz Ad-Din Al-Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, says Ahmed Abdel al-A’al was one its members and killed in fighting in Gaza (Hamas)

Though at least one Hamas member was killed in the battle, the group as a whole kept out of it, reportedly causing tensions between it and Islamic Jihad.

This rift in itself can be seen as something of a victory for the IDF, as it puts the two largest terror groups in Gaza out of kilter.

More civilians killed

Compared to the previous bouts of fighting between Israel and terror groups in the Strip, this most recent conflict had a slightly higher Palestinian death toll in general — 34 last week, compared to the next highest, 27 in May, according to the Hamas-run health ministry — and a far greater percentage of Palestinian civilians killed.

The military initially said it believed approximately 25 fatalities were terrorists, including Abu al-Ata; human rights officials said 18 members of terror groups were among the 34 dead, or 52 percent.

For comparison, in the IDF’s two-day battle in early May in which 27 people were killed by Israeli fire, at least 17 were members of terror groups, or 63% — eight of them from Islamic Jihad, five from Fatah, two from Hamas and one member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, according to the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, an Israeli think tank.

Palestinians attend the funeral procession of members of the same family who were killed in an Israeli airstrike, on November 14, 2019 in Deir al-Balah (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

The higher overall death toll from last week can be attributed to a slight change in IDF tactics with this round of fighting. In the past, the IDF aimed at striking a material blow at Hamas and other terror groups while largely refraining from targeting their personnel.

Last week, however, the IDF put considerable effort into striking rocket-launching squads, leading to the higher death toll.

Further raising the Palestinian casualty count, the Israeli Air Force launched an airstrike on a tin shack in the city of Deir el-Balah in the central Gaza Strip, killing a family of eight inside, in what appeared to be a mistake.

A tweet by the IDF’s Arabic-language spokesperson Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee including false information about the target of an Israeli airstrike that killed a Palestinian family of eight on November 14, 2019. (Screen capture)

Initially, the IDF said it had been targeting a commander of the Islamic Jihad’s rocket unit, whom it identified as Rasmi Abu Malhous, the same name as the owner of the shack. However, the next day, the military acknowledged that Abu Malhous was not the intended target of the strike, that indeed no such Islamic Jihad official is known to the IDF, and that this claim appeared to have been based on incorrect information taken from social media.

In fact, the military said the intended target was not a person, but Islamic Jihad infrastructure that it believed was located there.

“According to the information available to the IDF at the time of the strike, no civilians were expected to be harmed as a result of the strike,” the military said.

Abu Malhous was killed, along with his wife, sister-in-law and five children under the age of 13, including his 7-year-old son and two nephews, aged 2 and 3. Neighbors said Abu Malhous was not involved in any terrorist activity, though some indicated that a relative of his may have been.

Military officials told the Haaretz newspaper that the IDF did not check that the building was empty before conducting the strike.

The large number of civilian deaths led to international calls for an investigation into the incident.

The IDF said it was conducting a full probe of the case, both the airstrike and its publication of information about it. “The subject of his identity, as well as the harm caused to civilians by the strike, is being further reviewed,” the military said.

Palestinians gather around the remains of a house that the IDF says was used as a weapons cache controlled by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which was destroyed in an Israeli airstrike in Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip November 13, 2019. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

Israel generally rejects criticism that it targets civilians, saying it takes numerous precautions to prevent such unnecessary casualties.

It says its target selection is based on sophisticated intelligence and cleared by legal advisers and other experts, and that it often warns inhabitants to evacuate before their homes are struck. It says it has fine-tuned its guided missiles, delivering small payloads that minimize damage beyond the precise target.

Israel also argues that civilian casualties are inevitable in Gaza’s densely populated urban environment. Terrorists often fire rockets from crowded residential areas, drawing Israeli retaliatory strikes, and Israel accuses the terrorists of using civilians, including their own families, as human shields.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.

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