Israel airstrikes on Gaza kill 13 Palestinians including three Islamic Jihad militant commanders

Namita Singh

The Independent  /  May 9, 2023

Israeli strikes on Gaza: Top Islamic Jihad commanders among at least 12 killed. Tens of thousands of people have taken part in funerals for those killed

Israel has carried out a series of targeted airstrikes in the Gaza Strip, killing three commanders oif the Islamic Jihad militant group and at least 10 civilians, according to Palestinian officials.

The strikes have only added to the tension in the area, with exchanges of fire across the Gaza border having intensified recently, particularly following the death last week of an Islamic Jihad leader on hunger-strike in Israeli custody. Expecting return rocket fire, Israel closed roads in Israeli towns near Gaza, instructed residents there to keep close to bomb shelters, and said it was calling up some military reservists.

The airstrikes hit the top floor of an apartment building, a house in Gaza City and a third house in the southern town of Rafah. The Palestinian Health Ministry said 20 people were wounded, and that some were in serious or critical condition. Health officials said the 13 dead included a number of women and children. In a statement, Islamic Jihad said two of the commanders’ wives, several of their children and other bystanders were among the dead.

Israel said it targeted several militant training sites as well before the airstrikes halted at daybreak. Israel’s foreign minister Eli Cohen, who is in Delhi on a diplomatic visit, said he would be cutting the trip short to return to Israel after receiving a “security update” on the events back home.

The Israeli military said that the three commanders killed had been responsible for recent rocket fire toward Israel.

It identified them as Khalil Bahtini, the Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza Strip; Tareq Izzeldeen, the group’s intermediary between its Gaza and West Bank members; and Jehad Ghanam, the secretary of the Islamic Jihad’s military council. The Iran-backed Islamic Jihad, which is smaller than Gaza’s ruling Hamas group, confirmed the three were among the dead.

At midday, tens of thousands of people took part in two funerals, with at least 10 bodies being mourned in one funeral in Gaza City. Mourners carried the bodies, which lay on stretchers, on their shoulders to ambulances. Children’s coffins were carried next to those of their parents.

Such targeted killings are rare, and in the past, Palestinian militant groups have retaliated with heavy barrages of rocket fire. The scale of any escalation could hinge on whether Hamas take part.

While the Israel Defence Force (IDF) maintained that the pre-dawn airstrikes were a “response to incessant aggression on the part of the Islamic Jihad terrorist organization,” it conceded being “aware of some collateral damage”.

“If there were some tragic deaths, we’ll look into it and get back to you,” IDF spokesman Lt Col Richard Hecht was quoted as saying by CNN, as he called the three militants “kingpin terrorists”.

The Israeli airstrikes drew condemnation from Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh, Jordan’s foreign ministry and the Egyptian government, which often mediates between Israel and Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip.

Tor Wennesland, the UN envoy to the Middle East, said he was “deeply alarmed” and condemned the civilian deaths, calling on all sides “to exercise maximum restraint.”

Among the 10 civilian victims was a dentist known for offering free treatment to poor families, according to the man’s brother. Jamal Khuswan was killed along with his wife, Mervat, and 21 year-old son Youssef, a medical student, who were all asleep in their apartment. Mr Khuswan’s four other children survived the attack with minor injuries, his brother Mohammad, told Reuters. “It felt tough, very bad,” Mohammad said. Mr Khuswan was hailed by the health department as a national figure “who spared no effort to carry out his humanitarian duty”.

Dawood Shahab, an Islamic Jihad official, said that there would be a “unified Palestinian response” to the strikes at a time and place of its choosing.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh warned that Israel will “pay the price” for the killings. “Assassinating the leaders with a treacherous operation will not bring security to the occupier, but rather more resistance,” he said in a statement.

The airstrikes come at a time of already heightened tensions between Israel and militants in the Gaza Strip.

This is linked, in part, to increasing violence in the occupied West Bank, where Israel has been conducting near-daily raids for months to detain Palestinians suspected in planning or carrying out attacks on Israelis.

Israel says the raids in the occupied West Bank are meant to dismantle militant networks and thwart future attacks. The Palestinians see the attacks as further entrenchment of the occupation of land they seek for a future independent state.

Since the start of 2023, 105 Palestinians – about half of them are militants or alleged attackers – killed by Israeli fire in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to an Associated Press tally. At least 20 people have been killed in Palestinian attacks in Israel in the same period.