TEL AVIV — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned citizens Tuesday evening that the expected conflagration with Gaza-based Islamic Jihad might last several days and extend to more than one arena.
Israel waited a week for the operational opportunity to strike at the Islamic Jihad leadership in Gaza, ever since the Iranian-backed group fired over 100 projectiles toward Israel on May 2 in response to the death of jailed Palestinian hunger striker Khader Adnan.
Based on precise intelligence, dozens of Israeli manned and unmanned aircrafts launched simultaneous surprise attacks on three apartments in the Gaza Strip just after 2 a.m. on Tuesday, killing Khalil al-Bahtini, Tariq Izz ad-Din and Jihad al-Ghanam, three senior Islamic Jihad commanders whom Israel blames for orchestrating terror attacks against Israeli targets from Gaza and the West Bank.
Less than a minute after the launch of the guided missiles at their targets, the control centers of the Shin Bet security agency and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) received confirmation of the hits. Despite Israeli claims that it acted with surgical precision, at least 10 noncombatants were also killed, among them women and children — including family members of the assassinated leaders.
Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant gave approval for the assassinations a week earlier without convening or updating the security Cabinet. The ministers were convened after the fact in the evening hours of May 9 to receive updates and discuss various scenarios, including the likelihood of Hamas joining with Islamic Jihad to retaliate for the assassinations.
Following the Cabinet meeting that convened Tuesday evening, Netanyahu issued a public statement: “I say to Israel’s enemies, any escalation on your part will be met with a crushing response on our part.” Gallant said in a statement that “the goals of the operation have been achieved; the leadership of Islamic Jihad in Gaza has been eliminated.” He warned of possible retaliation against Israeli targets “near and far.”
Shin Bet Director Ronen Bar, who joined Netanyahu and Gallant in issuing public statements, said Islamic Jihad had planned to start manufacturing rockets in the West Bank town of Jenin, which would have been capable of reaching the nearby Israeli town of Afula. The man responsible for that project was Jihad al-Ghanam, one of the three that Israel killed, he said.
Tensions ran high all day in expectation of rocket attacks or other retaliatory action from Gaza. In response to warnings from the military, thousands of residents of Israeli towns and villages on the border with Gaza were evacuated to safer sites, roads near the border fence were closed and train service was halted.
As of this writing, the nature and extent of the expected retaliation is unclear. Netanyahu warned that it could involve attacks from other directions, including Lebanon, echoing a recent warning issued by Military Intelligence, which nonetheless rated prospects of such a scenario as not very high.
The Israeli operation, codenamed Shield and Arrow, reflects a decision by the Netanyahu government to resume the policy of targeted killings of senior terrorists. In August 2022, the government of Yair Lapid launched Operation Dawn, very reminiscent of the current operation, killing three Islamic Jihad commanders. Hamas did not join its ally’s retaliatory response at the time, and that operation ended within two days.
The question now is whether Hamas will remain on the fence once again this time or give in to strong Iranian pressure to join the Jihad in retaliation, using its far more extensive capabilities and arsenals. Hamas' involvement is expected to draw out the current round of violence over several days, at least. Will Hamas Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar be willing to risk all the economic gains he has achieved over the past two years by holding fire against Israel in order to embrace the solidarity of the Iranian-backed rejectionist organizations?
Israel conveyed repeated messages throughout the day to Hamas that it was not interested in harming the organization. However, Israel also indicated to Hamas that if it joins the fighting, its leaders would be placed on Israel’s hit list and no longer enjoy the relative immunity they enjoyed until now. Israel also warned that the permits given to 17,000 Gaza residents to work in Israel would be revoked. On Tuesday evening, Cabinet member Yisrael Katz was dispatched to the television studios to underscore the message, declaring that "if Hamas has to confront Israel, Yahya Sinwar will be the next target."
Tuesday’s assassinations caught many by surprise. Most Cabinet ministers were not informed in advance, not even — and especially — National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose radical nationalist Jewish Party has boycotted government and Knesset sessions this week to protest Israel’s lack of response to last week’s rocket attacks.
"Netanyahu doesn't need his Cabinet," a senior Likud source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity. "There are mostly inexperienced people like ultra-Orthodox Housing Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf or irresponsible people like Ben-Gvir, who leaks everything to the media. It's good that the decisions were made in a more intimate forum."
A senior Israeli security source told Al-Monitor that the operation proved to Israel’s enemies that they had miscalculated in thinking that Israel’s deterrence capability had been damaged by the domestic turmoil roiling the country over a planned judicial overhaul weakening Israel’s courts. “In times of emergency, everyone stands up. Even last night — hundreds of Air Force reservists were active, either in the aircraft themselves or on the ground. No one stayed away,” he said, referring to warnings earlier this year by air force pilots that they would not show up for reserve duty if the judicial overhaul was implemented.
On the other hand, one of the leaders of the protest against the government's overhaul told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that "the attack on Gaza demonstrates once again how important it is for Israel to remain a powerful democracy with an independent and credible judiciary. Women and children were also killed in this attack, and no one in Israel is happy about it.” He pointed out that all IDF actions are examined by Israel’s legal authorities in accordance with the laws of war and, if necessary, by the attorney general. “The world knows this, and therefore Israel is not dragged for the moment into tribunals of international jurisdiction. If the judicial overhaul is adopted, Israel would lose its credibility in legally protecting the IDF, its officers and fighters. Today, more than ever, it is clear to us how important it is not to have this happen," he added.