Palestinians gathered on Wednesday around the remains of a house destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.
Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters
Exchanges of Fire Continue Across Israel-Gaza Border
A clash set off by Israel’s killing of an Islamic Jihad commander teetered between containment and escalation into a broader conflict.
By Isabel Kershner and Iyad Abuheweila
Nov. 13, 2019
Updated 6:25 p.m. ET
JERUSALEM — Gaza militants continued to bombard southern Israel with rockets on Wednesday and Israeli forces struck back against targets in the Palestinian coastal enclave in a clash set off by Israel’s assassination of a senior Islamic Jihad commander on Tuesday.
Though the death toll rose in Gaza and much of southern Israel was paralyzed by air-raid warnings, both sides appeared to be carefully measuring their actions.
After a quiet night and a resumption of hostilities early Wednesday, Israel and Gaza teetered between a quick resolution to this round of violence and a possible escalation — either intentional or through a misstep — that could lead to a much broader conflict.
In a speech on Wednesday night, Ziad al-Nakhala, the secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, said that Israel was seeking a cease-fire and he laid out his group’s conditions for one, including an end to Israel’s targeted killings and a commitment to previous understandings on easing the blockade on Gaza.
By midnight, the death toll in Gaza over the two days of violence had risen to at least 26, according to Palestinian health officials, including several civilians. Palestinian officials said more than 80 people had been wounded. The Israeli military put the number of militants killed at about 20.
Iron Dome missiles intercepted a rocket on Wednesday above Sderot, Israel.
Menahem Kahana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
No deaths have been reported in Israel as a result of the rocket fire, which triggered multiple sirens on Wednesday and sent residents running for bomb shelters. But the Magen David Adom emergency medical service said it had treated dozens of people as a result of the rocket fire that began on Tuesday. A few were lightly injured by shrapnel; the rest were wounded while running for cover or showed stress symptoms.
The fight remained between Israel and Islamic Jihad, with Hamas, the larger militant group that governs Gaza, having stayed out of the fray so far. If Hamas were to start firing, the conflict would likely spiral down sharply, with Israeli officials warning of harsh consequences.
Hamas sent mixed messages, issuing statements in solidarity with Islamic Jihad and the “resistance” in the name of the Joint Operation Chamber, a committee of all the militant factions in Gaza that at least nominally is managing the battle.
Analysts put Hamas’s continued restraint down to its probable desire for a quick return to its understandings with Israel that have led to relative calm along the border in recent months, as well as injections of Qatari cash for the organization.
Hamas’s reticence perhaps also attested to frustrations with Islamic Jihad. Israeli officials said the smaller group had repeatedly tried to disrupt the cease-fire with sporadic, rogue rocket fire over the last year and had specifically accused Baha Abu al-Ata, the commander who was killed along with his wife in a missile strike as they slept in their apartment before dawn on Tuesday, of directing the attacks.
But standing by could also have consequences. One Israeli minister, Yuval Steinitz, warned that Israel would broaden its assault if Hamas did not act to rein in Islamic Jihad.
A funeral for an Islamic Jihad militant in Beit Hanun, Gaza, on Wednesday.
Mahmud Hams/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Issuing a stern warning to Islamic Jihad, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel was not looking for an escalation but would respond harshly to each rocket attack.
“Islamic Jihad would do well to understand this right now, instead of when it will be too late,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of a special cabinet meeting. “I believe that Islamic Jihad is starting to internalize this message. They understand that we will continue to strike them without mercy. They understand that Israel is very strong and that our will is very great.”
The United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East peace process, Nickolay Mladenov, said his organization was working “to urgently de-escalate the situation.”
“The indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars against population centers is absolutely unacceptable and must stop immediately,” Mr. Mladenov said in a statement.
Burnt cars in Sderot.
Ariel Schalit/Associated Press
Islamic Jihad’s military wing took responsibility for all the rocket fire in a statement on Wednesday.
But Islamic Jihad appeared to have scaled back the range of its rocket fire, if not the intensity of its barrages, in response to the killing of Mr. Abu al-Ata. Most rockets and mortar shells appeared aimed at Israeli cities and communities within a few miles of the Gaza border, with the militants refraining from firing at the populous Tel Aviv area to the north, as they did initially on Tuesday.
In addition to the attack that killed Mr. Abu al-Ata, the group also blamed Israel for the attempted assassination of Akram al-Ajouri, an Islamic Jihad leader whose home in Damascus, Syria was also hit by an airstrike before dawn on Tuesday. The group said its “account with the Zionist enemy is still open,” adding, “our jihad is ongoing and our operations are continuing.”
Israel has remained silent about the attack on Mr. al-Ajouri, which killed his son and another man, neither taking nor denying responsibility.
The Israeli military said on Wednesday that it was limiting its airstrikes to Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, including infrastructure, weapons manufacturing facilities and rocket-launching crews. The military said it also struck one squad that was preparing to fire anti-tank missiles.
Still, the situation remained highly volatile. Islamic Jihad made it clear on Tuesday that its real revenge for the killing was yet to come, suggesting that the rocket fire was just a prelude. And the more the death toll rose in Gaza, the more likely that Hamas would come under pressure to get involved.
In Gaza, schools and most businesses remained closed and people mostly kept indoors, wary of Israeli strikes and the danger of misfired rockets falling short of the border.
Three civilians, Rafat Ayyad and his two sons, Islam and Amir, one of them a young child, were killed in an airstrike as they rode on a motorcycle in a residential district of Gaza City on Wednesday morning, according to relatives.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli military, said he did not have details of what happened in that case. But he added that the military was taking “extensive measures, both intelligence-wise and operationally, and in the choice of munitions we use, to minimize to the greatest extent possible any harm to noncombatants.”
Many Gazans said they wanted to see the militant groups respond harshly to deter Israel from carrying out further assassinations after the killing of Mr. Abu al-Ata.
“This was a cowardly act,” said Ismail Al-Khour, 30, a mechanic in Gaza City. “The resistance must bomb them and the occupied lands.”
Israeli schools within a 25-mile radius of the Gaza border were closed for a second day on Wednesday. After dusk, the authorities instructed the residents of communities close to the Gaza border to stay near their safe rooms and bomb shelters amid almost constant rocket fire.
Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system intercepted most of the rockets headed toward population centers, but one house in the coastal city of Ashkelon suffered a direct hit and a woman was moderately injured.
Israel’s newly appointed defense minister, Naftali Bennett, issued his own warning to enemies on all fronts on his first day in the post, saying, “Whoever plans to harm us by day will never be sure that they will make it though the night.”
Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, and Iyad Abuheweila from Gaza City. Ibrahim El-Mughraby contributed reporting from Gaza City.