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Israel Kills Jihad Commander           11/12 06:32

   IGAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) -- A pair of Israeli airstrikes targeted senior 
Islamic Jihad commanders in Gaza and in Syria early on Tuesday, escalating 
Israel's confrontation with Iran across the region and threatening to unleash 
another devastating round of cross-border violence with Palestinian militants.

   In eastern Gaza, the Israeli strike killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife, 
setting off a furious barrage of dozens of rocket attacks reaching as far as 
the Tel Aviv heartland as Islamic Jihad vowed further revenge. The Israeli 
military said Abu el-Atta was the mastermind of recent attacks against it and 
the militant group's top commander in Gaza.

   Meanwhile, Syrian officials said an Israeli airstrike in the capital, 
Damascus, targeted another Islamic Jihad commander, Akram al-Ajouri, who was 
not harmed.

   Syria's state-run news agency said Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at 
al-Ajouri's home, killing his son and granddaughter. The Israeli military had 
no comment.

   The sudden surge in violence looked to awaken Israel's increasingly open 
conflict with Iran and its proxies in the region. Prime Minister Benjamin 
Netanyahu has issued a series of warnings recently about alleged Iranian 
aggression.

   Netanyahu also has been criticized by southern border residents and 
political rivals for a tepid response to recent militant attacks. Netanyahu's 
Security Cabinet held a lengthy emergency meeting to discuss further action.

   Netanyahu said afterward, speaking alongside military chief, Lt. Gen. Aviv 
Kochavi, that el-Atta, an "arch-terrorist, was the main generator of terrorism 
from the Gaza Strip."

   "He was in the midst of plotting additional attacks these very days," 
Netanyahu said. "He was a ticking bomb."

   The airstrikes come at a tenuous time politically for Israel, as Netanyahu 
leads a caretaker government after two inconclusive elections. His chief 
challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, is currently trying to build a 
coalition government of his own. Gantz said the airstrike was "the right 
decision."

   A successful military operation could bolster Netanyahu as he seeks to hold 
onto power --- especially if he is indicted on corruption charges.

   Israel's attorney general is expected to make a decision in the coming 
weeks, and an indictment would increase pressure on Netanyahu to step aside. 
Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as the only leader capable of steering 
the country through its many security challenges.

   The Gaza airstrike took place overnight, killing Abu el-Atta as he slept at 
home.

   Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, told reporters that Abu 
el-Atta was responsible for several recent rocket attacks on southern Israel 
and that he was actively planning new attacks. "We essentially over the last 
week have been waiting for the opportune moment to conduct this surgical 
strike," he said.

   Conricus said the airstrike had destroyed only the floor of the building in 
the Shejaeya neighborhood, in the eastern part of Gaza City, to minimize 
"collateral damage."

   His relatives and the Islamic Jihad said the woman killed in the strike was 
Abu el-Atta's wife and the two wounded were their children.

   The militant group said the 42-year-old Abu el-Atta was undergoing "a heroic 
act" when he was assassinated. Abu el-Atta's father said the Islamic Jihad 
commander had been in hiding in recent weeks fearing he would be targeted.

   Minutes after the Iran-backed Palestinian group confirmed the death, 
barrages of rockets were fired toward Israel. Air raid sirens continued to go 
off throughout the morning as far as Tel Aviv. In one instance, a rocket landed 
on a highway, landing just meters from a passing vehicle.

   The military said more than 50 rockets were fired in just a few hours, with 
20 intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defense system. There were no Israeli 
casualties.

   In response, Israel shut down crossing points into Gaza and reduced the 
permissible fishing area off the territory's coast to 6 nautical miles. Schools 
were closed, and people were instructed to stay home in communities stretching 
from the Gaza border all the way to Tel Aviv, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) 
away. Public shelters were opened and restrictions placed on large gatherings.

   Islamic Jihad gets its funding, weapons and guidance from Iran. It often 
carries out attacks independently of Hamas, the larger militant group that 
controls Gaza. Conricus described Abu el-Atta as a powerful figure in Gaza who 
often acts alone without instruction even from Tehran.

   Israel had no further plans to resume its assassinations of militant leaders 
--- a practice that in the past has triggered heavy fighting. "There was no 
other choice," Conricus said.

   But at midmorning, the army said it struck two Islamic Jihad militants from 
the group's rocket launching unit. It claimed a direct hit but gave no further 
details. The Gaza Health Ministry said a Palestinian man was killed and another 
wounded in that strike.

   One of the rockets from Gaza hit a residential house in Netivot in southern 
Israel, penetrating the roof of the home, the army said. No one was hurt.

   The attacks also come at a tense moment for Islamic Jihad's Iranian patrons, 
who are struggling under crippling U.S. sanctions.

   Iran's regional influence is also being challenged by unprecedented, 
economically-driven mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon --- two countries where 
Tehran wields major influence. The protests are creating unrest that Tehran 
fears would spark a backlash against Iran-backed proxy militias in those 
countries. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused the U.S. and its 
regional allies of fomenting the Iraq and Lebanon unrest.

   In Damascus, a military official said Israeli warplanes fired three missiles 
toward the Syrian capital, with one being destroyed by Syria's air defenses 
before reaching its target.

   The two others struck the home of al-Ajouri, the official said. Al-Ajouri's 
son Muath was killed, along with his granddaughter Batoul. A second man 
identified as Abdullah Yousef Hassan was killed and nine civilians wounded, the 
unidentified official said according to Syrian state-media.

   An Associated Press reporter at the scene said the attack destroyed the 
three-story building in Damascus, located on a main highway about 50 meters 
(yards) across from the Lebanese Embassy.

   Israel frequently strikes Iranian interests inside Syria and has carried out 
hundreds of airstrikes in the course of Syria's civil war, now in its ninth 
year. Tuesday's attack however was a rare assassination attempt of a 
Palestinian militant in the Syrian capital.

   Just this week Netanyahu appointed hard-line politician Naftali Bennett as 
Israel's new defense minister to fortify his political base. Bennett has long 
advocated tougher action against Palestinian militants. But Bennett only 
formally took office Tuesday and the military said the operation had been 
planned long in advance.

   Netanyahu said the Cabinet approved the strike 10 days ago and waited for "a 
unique window of opportunity to carry out the operation in optimal conditions 
with maximum chances of success and minimum collateral damage."

   The operation appeared to have wide backing despite the fraught political 
climate and Israel's ceremonial president, who has been working to establish a 
unity government between Netanyahu and Gantz, called for it not to enter the 
fray.

   "We stand behind the security forces, who have been working for the success 
of this morning's operations for a long time," said President Reuven Rivlin. 
"This is no time for political squabbles."

   Since Hamas took over Gaza by force in 2007 from the internationally backed 
Palestinian Authority, Israel and Gaza militants have fought three wars, with 
the third in 2014 lasting for 50 days.

   Short-but-frequent spasms of violence have occurred, the latest earlier this 
month when about 10 projectiles were fired at Israel, which accused Abu el-Atta 
of being behind them.


(KR)

 
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