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Islamic Jihad Commander Killed In Airstrike, Israel Announced


Bahaa Abu el-Atta was in Gaza, that strip of land that Israel has surrounded by fences and walls. Reporter Naomi Zeveloff is covering this story from Tel Aviv. Welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: Who is - or I guess I should say, who was this leader, Bahaa Abu el-Atta?

ZEVELOFF: So he was a leader in Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which is a smaller group than Hamas in the Gaza Strip but still a powerful group, and Israel says that he was responsible for many recent attacks on the country. Israel says it killed him with a precision missile from a jet fighter and that he was killed in bed overnight. And the Ministry of Health says another person was killed with him - the Ministry of Health in Gaza. And there are reports out there that it was his wife.

INSKEEP: I guess we should mention that Islamic Jihad is a group that is committed to the destruction of the state of Israel. Is that fair to say?

ZEVELOFF: This is a - you know, a group that has fought against Israel, you know, for years, and it's a group that Israel has been in conflict with before, certainly.

INSKEEP: And so why would Bahaa Abu el-Atta be killed now? Any idea?

ZEVELOFF: Israel is calling this assassination, this targeted killing, a preventative measure. In addition to the fact that they say that he was responsible for past attacks, they also said that he was planning future attacks on Israel. And you know, I was on the phone with an army spokesman this morning who called him a ticking time bomb, you know. And beyond that, there's a kind of broader context, which is that Iran supports militant activity in the Gaza Strip, and Israel and Iran are facing off in Syria. So this could, you know, potentially be a message to Iran. It's not clear at this time.

But there's also a political timing to this, potential political timing, as many pundits are speculating, which is that, you know, Israel is in the process of trying to form another government, which Prime Minister Netanyahu failed to do, and now his rival is in the process of trying to do it. So you have, you know, pundits, commentators and certainly critics of Netanyahu are speculating that, you know, he's trying to make a show of strength at this moment.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to understand this group being in Gaza, which is controlled, as you said, by Hamas. How is Islamic Jihad, this extremist group, related to Hamas? Are they a subsidiary organization? Are they friends? Do they hide out in Gaza and are just barely welcome there? How do you describe it?

ZEVELOFF: Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas have worked in concert in the past, but they are also rivals. And in recent months, Israel says Palestinian Islamic Jihad is responsible for firing rockets from the Strip. And right now, you know, Hamas is often tied up with running the Strip from a bureaucratic point of view and doesn't always have the resources to target Israel, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad has filled in that role more and more recently. And Israeli security forces see Palestinian Islamic Jihad as, in a way, acting as a spoiler to the - a more quiet status quo that Israel has with Hamas.

INSKEEP: Well, I guess things are not quiet now - right? - because someone fired...

ZEVELOFF: No, certainly not.

INSKEEP: ...Fifty rockets out of Gaza in apparent response to this Israeli airstrike.

ZEVELOFF: Right. There have been at least 50 rockets out of Gaza, and there are sirens that, you know, have rung out, you know, all over the southern part of Israel, certainly in central Israel. I even heard some sirens this morning in Tel Aviv and was in a bomb shelter myself a couple of times this morning. And Israel has been responding with strikes to the Strip as well, and there have been injuries on both sides.

INSKEEP: OK. Naomi Zeveloff, reporter in Tel Aviv, thanks very much for your insights.

ZEVELOFF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Naomi Zeveloff