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Egypt steps in to mediate as Israeli strikes on Gaza leave seven dead

Palestinian Zaki Mohammed was killed in an Israeli airstrike [Anadolu/Getty]

Date of publication: 12 November, 2019

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Seven people have died in Gaza as a result of Israeli airstrikes as Egypt steps in to try and calm tensions between the two sides.
Egypt is attempting to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza as the two sides exchanged fire following Israel's killing of an Islamic Jihad commander.

Egyptian officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Egypt's general intelligence agency has stepped up communications and has "opened channels" with the US and the European Union.

Egypt often acts as a mediator between Israel and Gaza militants, and brokered a cease-fire deal in May.

That deal appeared threatened Tuesday after a pre-dawn Israeli airstrike in Gaza killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander.

Israel's military killed a commander of Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad in a strike on his home in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, prompting retaliatory rocket fire and fears of a severe escalation in violence. Gaza's health ministry places the current toll at seven people killed and 25 wounded.

Israel launched airstrikes in response to barrages of rocket fire from Gaza, saying it targeted Islamic Jihad training and weapons manufacturing sites as well as rocket-launching squads in the raids.

The rocket fire into Israel caused damage and a number of injuries, with at least one rocket hitting a house and another narrowly missing passing cars on a highway. 

A factory in the city of Sderot was also hit, sparking a fire there. Israeli medics said they had treated 39 people.

Israeli strikes

Reports that a separate strike targeted an Islamic Jihad member in Damascus added to the day's tensions.

Islamic Jihad confirmed one of its officials, Akram Ajouri, was targeted in Damascus, with Syrian state news agency SANA reporting an Israeli strike hit Ajouri's home, "killing his son Muadh and another person". The other person was reported to be his granddaughter by Associated Press.

Israel had not commented on that strike.

Read more: Who was slain Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata?

The initial Israeli raid in the early hours of Tuesday, thought to have been carried out by a drone, killed Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu Al-Ata, 42.

Islamic Jihad confirmed his death along with that of his wife and said their two children were wounded.

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.

Israel blamed Ata for recent rocket fire into its territory and said he was preparing further attacks.

The Gazan health ministry also said Tuesday Zaki Ghannam, 25, was killed and three others wounded in Beit Lahiya.

Gaza's health ministry later said that one of those wounded died from his injuries, identifying the man killed as 26-year-old Ibrahim Al-Dabous.

Two more Palestinians were killed in an Israeli strike in the northern Gaza Strip later on Tuesday.

As the retaliatory rocket fire followed, air raid sirens rang out in various parts of Israel as residents took cover in bomb shelters.

Schools closed

Israel's military said on Tuesday morning that around 50 rockets had been fired at its territory and air defences had intercepted around 20 of them, but that number increased throughout the day.

Video spread online showing the rocket that hit the highway at Gan Yavne in Israel's centre, narrowly missing cars.

"We woke up and saw the news regarding the assassination at 5:30 am (0330 GMT), and we celebrated," said a man who gave his name only as Netanel in the town of Sderot, near the Gaza border.

"We are strong and we want to fully support the security of Israel."

Islamic Jihad claimed responsibility for rocket fire from Gaza.

Schools were closed in both the Gaza Strip and in parts of Israel, including in the commercial capital Tel Aviv.

The Israeli army ordered "non-essential" workers in Tel Aviv, central Israel and the Gaza border region to stay at home and banned public gatherings.

'Take time'

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Ata over the past year had "planned and executed many attacks" and "fired hundreds of rockets at communities adjoining Gaza".

"Israel is not interested in escalation, but we shall do everything necessary in order to defend ourselves," he said in a televised statement from defence headquarters.

"I'm telling you in advance, it could take time."

Nadav Argaman, the head of Israeli domestic security agency Shin Bet, which took part in the targeted strike, said the operation "allowed us to reach the level of the bed in which he slept, the small room in which he lived, in which he hid".

Damage from a blast could be seen at Ata's home in the Shejayia district in the east of Gaza City. 

Mosque loudspeakers rang out with news of Ata's death early Tuesday and crowds joined his funeral procession through the streets of the city, occasionally firing guns into the air.

A joint statement by Gaza's militant groups said Israel had crossed "all red lines" and would face consequences.

Islamic Jihad said it was on "maximum alert", while Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules the Palestinian enclave, threatened revenge.

[Story continues below interactive timeline]

Politically sensitive time

Israel said Ata was behind rocket fire toward a music festival in the Israeli city of Sderot in August as well as further rocket attacks at the start of November.

It has also accused him of being behind sniper fire and drone launchings.

Ata "is responsible for most of the terror attacks in the last year from the Gaza Strip," the army said, describing him as a "ticking bomb".

The strikes and rocket fire raised the possibility of a severe escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.It alleged he was "promoting preparations to commit immediate terror attacks in various ways towards Israeli civilians and (Israeli) troops during the recent few days".

Three wars have been fought between them since 2008 and Gaza has been under a strict Israeli blockade for more than a decade. The third war was in 2014 and lasted 50 days.

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

Islamic Jihad is the second most-powerful militant group in the Gaza Strip behind Hamas, to which it is allied.

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 he had been briefed on the airstrike in advance, calling it "the right decision," and Netanyahu updated his rival on developments later Tuesday, according to the prime minister's office.

A September 17 general election ended in a deadlock and a new government is yet to be formed. It was the second election since April, when polls also ended inconclusively.

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

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