Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israel had targeted senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata for elimination earlier that morning because he was responsible for numerous terror attacks and was planning more.
Netanyahu stressed, though, that Israel was not seeking a further escalation of hostilities with Gaza, in his first comments since the IDF carried out an early morning airstrike that killed Abu al-Ata, 42, as well as his wife Asma, 39.
“Israel is not interested in an escalation but we will do everything necessary to protect ourselves,” Netanyahu said in televised remarks given alongside IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi and Shin Bet chief Nadav Argaman, who oversaw the dawn strike.
Explaining the decision to eliminate Abu al-Ata, Netanyahu said “this arch-terrorist was the main instigator of terrorism from the Gaza Strip” in the past year. “He initiated, planned and carried out many terrorist attacks. He fired hundreds of rockets at communities in the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip, whose suffering we have seen. He was in the midst of planning additional attacks in the immediate short term. He was a ticking time bomb.”
Added the prime minister: “The basic assumption of all terrorists is identical. They think that they can attack civilians and concurrently hide behind civilians. However, we have proven that it is possible to attack murderers with minimal harm to innocents.”
“Whoever thinks that it is possible to hurt our citizens and evade our long arm – is mistaken. We have proven that we can attack with surgical precision anywhere terrorists hide. Whoever hurts us – we will hurt them.”
Speaking after Netanyahu, Kohavi said that Abu al-Ata had “acted in every way to sabotage attempts for calm with Hamas, and… was responsible for the majority of attacks that took place over past year.”
The IDF chief then warned that while Israel “does not want an escalation” but was “prepared to defend from an escalation from the ground, air and sea,” giving the first inkling that a broad military operation could ensue from the incident.
Netanyahu clarified that Israel’s response “could take time.”
The premier explained that the assassination operation had been discussed by the security cabinet for several months and received unanimous approval ten days ago. The senior ministers agreed to allow the IDF to choose the proper timing for the strike, taking into account the imperative to harm as few innocent civilians as possible, Netanyahu said.
Kohavi added that the army had recommended that the security cabinet authorize the operation. His remark came as lawmakers in the left-wing Labor, Democratic Camp and Joint List parties derided the operation as part of political jockeying by Netanyahu to force prime minister-designate Benny Gantz into a unity government led by the Likud leader.
Gantz, for his part, expressed his support and that of his Blue and White party for the operation.
Taking the podium after Kohavi, Argaman said that Abu al-Ata had “rejected the understanding reached between Israel and Hamas,” in a rare comment from a senior Israeli official about the level of cooperation between Jerusalem and the Gaza-based terror group.
Argaman, whose Shin Bet was closely involved in the early dawn operation, said that intelligence led his agency to the exact room Abu al-Ata was sleeping in, even though he had been on the run for last ten days since a recent salvo of rocket fire that Israel attributed to him.
The Shin Bet chief said the strike was carried out “at the best possible time” from an operational point of view. “The stars were aligned.”
The public statements from Netanyahu, Kohavi and Argaman came after the IDF ordered schools closed in southern and central Israel, including the Tel Aviv metropolitan area, as terror groups in the Gaza Strip began firing dozens of rockets at cities and towns throughout the country in retaliation for the assassination of Abu al-Ata.
Approximately 160 rockets and mortar shells were fired from the Gaza Strip at central and southern Israel on Tuesday as of 2 p.m., according to unofficial tallies. Soldiers operating the Iron Dome missile defense system shot down some 60 of those incoming projectiles.
As of Tuesday morning, a 35-year-old man was lightly injured by rocket fire outside the town of Gan Yavne, and six people were brought to the hospital with injuries sustained while running to bomb shelters or with panic attacks. An 8-year-old girl was in serious condition in the Tel Aviv suburb of Holon after she lost consciousness suddenly during a rocket attack at 8 a.m. It was not immediately clear if her collapse was caused by the attack.
Shortly before 11 a.m., an Israeli drone bombed two Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorists preparing to fire rockets at Israel from the northern Gaza Strip, Palestinian media outlets reported. According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, one of the PIJ members was killed and the other was injured.
The IDF confirmed carrying out the airstrike, saying it had done so to “remove the immediate threat.” It was Israel’s first strike in the Gaza Strip since the rocket fire began, following the assassination of Abu al-Ata.
The IDF Home Front Command ordered all schools and non-essential businesses closed in the following areas: the Gaza periphery; the Lachish region; the western Negev; the central Negev; and the Shfela region. The IDF also forbade gatherings of more than 100 people.