Israel's Killing of Top Palestinian Militant a 'Reckless Action' that Could Push Gaza 'to the Brink of War,' Foreign Relations Expert Warns

The Gaza Strip and southern Israel were rocked by missile and rocket strikes on Tuesday, marking a high point in recent tensions and raising fears the hostilities could erupt into a wider military confrontation. Three people have been killed in Gaza so far on Tuesday morning, and several houses and roads in Israel have been hit, with no casualties been reported.

The violence flared up with an Israeli missile attack that killed Baha Abu Al-Atta, a top commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad militant group in Gaza City. The Israel Defense Forces said Atta was planning an imminent terrorist attack with Iranian backing, The Times of Israel reported. Atta's wife was also killed in the attack.

Around the same time, Israel targeted Islamic Jihad official Akram Al-Ajouri in the Syrian capital Damascus. Reuters reported that two people are thought to have been killed, including one of Ajouri's sons. Ajouri is believed to have survived.

The relatively rare targeted strikes prompted a barrage of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip into southern Israel. Air raid alarms sounded all over the region as far away as Tel Aviv, warning of potential incoming fire, as Israeli fighter jets hit numerous locations in Gaza.

Schools across southern and central Israel were closed while Israel's home-front command advised civilians not to go to work and stay home unless it was vital.

Public shelters were also opened as the Iron Dome defensive system fired intercepting missiles towards the incoming rockets.

There have been no reports of casualties in Israel, though several drivers survived a close miss when a rocket landed at a highway intersection.

In a statement, the Israeli military said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had authorized the operation against Atta.

The IDF blamed the commander for recent rocket, drone and sniper attacks against Israel, plus attempted infiltrations into the country by militants.

Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, noted on Twitter that several recent stories in Israeli media suggested a strike on Atta was imminent. "It seems to be a premeditated, unnecessary, and reckless action at this point," he argued.

Lovatt also warned that Palestinian factions may read the attack as a return to regular targeted assassinations of prominent leaders. "They won't accept this," he predicted, adding, "Previous instances have pushed Gaza to the brink of war."

The flare-up comes at a critical juncture for Israeli politics. The major parties are stuck in a stalemate following two general elections which failed to produce a clear winner.

Netanyahu was twice unable to form a coalition government, and Blue and White coalition leader and former IDF general Benny Gantz has now been given until November 20 to try and set up his own administration.

Security was a major theme of both men's campaigns. Many Israeli politicians have depicted Israel's relations with Gaza's Hamas and Islamic Jihad Islamist groups as part of its wider confrontation with Iran, and both Netanyahu and Gantz have pushed a hard line against militant activity there.

Tuesday's violence offers potential for limited but much-needed political consensus in Israel. Lovatt told Newsweek that if the situation escalates further "Israeli politicians will rally around the flag and back continued action towards Gaza."

Lovatt added that since the last inconclusive election, "there has been speculation that Netanyahu could try to create a national security emergency to justify the creation of a unity government. Maybe this is it?"

Indeed, Gantz has already praised the decision of "the political echelon and the IDF" to kill Atta. He added that "the fight against terrorism is ongoing and requires moments of difficult decision making."

Gantz stressed that his coalition "will back up any proper activity for the security of Israel and put the residents' security above politics."

But events can quickly spiral out of control. Lovatt said that "it may be difficult to put a brake on further escalation," especially so given the "delicate political juncture" in Israel. "Netanyahu will not want to expose himself to criticism for being too soft," he added.

That said, other recent exchanges between Gaza and Israel have not prompted a wider conflict. James Sorene, the CEO of Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre and executive editor of the Fathom journal, said on Twitter any escalation won't necessarily benefit Netanyahu.

Sorene also explained that the assassination follows "a long period of warnings sent through official and secret channels for Atta to desist, this involved Hamas and Egypt. This is not a short term reflex response, it's been brewing for more than 6 months.

"You will hear a lot of politicians in Israel who oppose Netanyahu, and media, suggesting this is all about politics and getting Gantz to quickly join a unity Government," Sorene concluded. "But its not as simple as that."

Islamic Jihad, Israel, assassination, rocket, missile
Israeli police sappers inspect a hole in the highway in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod on November 12, 2019, following a rocket attack from Gaza City after an Israeli strike that killed a commander of Islamic Jihad. JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images/Getty