Israel kills Islamic Jihad commander, rockets rain from Gaza

Israel kills Islamic Jihad commander, rockets rain from Gaza
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel killed a top commander from the Iranian-backed Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad on Tuesday in the Gaza Strip, drawing rocket salvoes that reached as far as Tel Aviv in the worst cross-border fighting in months.

The rare targeted strike which killed Islamic Jihad’s Baha Abu Al-Atta in Gaza came as Syrian state media said a separate missile attack had hit the home of an Islamic Jihad official in Damascus, killing two people including one of his sons.

Syria said Israel carried out the Damascus strike. Israel did not comment.

As the sound of Palestinian rockets and Israeli air strikes echoed throughout Gaza and Israeli towns across the border, Islamic Jihad leader Khaled Al-Batsh spoke at the midday Gaza funeral of Al-Atta.

“Israel executed two coordinated attacks, in Syria and in Gaza, in a declaration of war,” he said. Mourners fired guns into the air, chanting “revenge!”

In Tel Aviv, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described Al-Atta as a “ticking bomb” who was responsible for a string of recent cross-border rocket, drone and sniper attacks and was suspected of planning more very soon.

“Israel is not interested in escalation, but we will do everything required to defend ourselves,” said Netanyahu, who oversaw Israel’s last Gaza war in 2014. “This could take time.”

Financial market reaction in Israel was muted, anticipating no major escalation. Recent such rounds of violence across the Gaza border have ended with the help of Egyptian and U.N. mediation.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, joined Islamic Jihad in condemning Israel.

Though the two factions are sworn to the destruction of Israel, they have not always been in agreement over strategy. Islamic Jihad, free of the burden of governing Gaza’s impoverished two million Palestinians, has at times chafed at Hamas’s efforts to secure a long-term ceasefire with Israel.

Israel’s military chief, Aviv Kochavi, said Al-Atta had been obstructing the truce bid. Hamas said Israel “bears full responsibility for all consequences of this escalation,” and pledged that Al-Atta’s death “will not go unpunished.”

SHOWDOWN WITH IRAN?

The exchange of fire sent civilians on both sides huddling for shelter and forced businesses and schools to close.

Gaza authorities reported seven people killed, including Al-Atta, 42 and his wife in the pre-dawn strike that destroyed a floor in their home, scattering debris around their neighborhood.

Further air-strikes in Gaza, two of which the Israeli military said targeted Islamic Jihad rocket crews, killed five more Palestinian men. Islamic Jihad confirmed one was a member of their group.

Gaza medical officials said 24 Palestinians had been wounded, as ambulances streaked through abandoned streets and Israeli missiles landed, many in open fields, apparently targeting hidden rocket silos.

In Israel, officials said 25 people had sustained mostly light injuries. Among the sites hit by Palestinian rockets were a toy factory in the border town of Sderot and a highway where CCTV footage showed cars and a bus barely escaping the impact.

The shekel <ILS=> was, by the end of the day up 0.1% against the dollar, recovering from an earlier dip. The main Tel Aviv share index <.TA125> closed 0.1% lower.

The Israeli military said that about 200 rockets were fired at Israel, some of them reaching as far as the country’s commercial hub Tel Aviv. Dozens were intercepted and dozens more fell in open areas, the military said.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman said on Twitter:

“Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Islamist terrorist org backed by Iran, is again attacking Israel with 100’s of missiles aimed at civilians. We stand w(ith) our friend & ally Israel.”

Israel casts rising Gaza tensions as part of a regional struggle with arch-foe Iran that has also played out in Syria.

Right-wing Netanyahu has invoked such scenarios in trying to form a broad coalition government with center-left rivals to secure a fifth term after two inconclusive elections this year.

Islamic Jihad said the target of the Damascus attack was the home of a political leader, Akram Al-Ajouri. Israel’s Army Radio described Al-Ajouri as head of Islamic Jihad’s military wing. It was unclear whether Al-Ajouri was hurt in the strike.

At the scene of the Damascus strike, a Reuters journalist said the top floor of a two-storey building had been completely scorched. A neighbor said he had been woken up at around 4 a.m. by three explosions that had blown open the doors in his house.

Syrian state media said six people were wounded as well as the two people killed, describing the target as a civilian home in Mezzah, a western district of the capital where several embassies are located.

In recent years, Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria against Iran and the Tehran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, which it calls the biggest threat to its borders.

(Additional reporting by Alaa Swilam in Cairo, Tom Perry in Beirut, Steven Scheer and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Peter Graff, Gareth Jones and Philippa Fletcher)

Syrian, Iraqi forces say U.S. bombs military border positions, U.S. denies

FILE PHOTO: Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) march during a military parade in Daquq, nearby Kirkuk, Iraq August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Ako Rasheed/File Photo

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian state media said on Monday that U.S.-led coalition aircraft had bombed a Syrian army position near the Iraqi border, causing deaths and injuries, but the U.S. military denied it was responsible.

The attack took place in al-Harra, southeast of the town of Albu Kamal, state news agency SANA said, citing a military source. SANA said the attack caused an unspecified number of deaths and injuries.

A commander in the alliance fighting alongside Damascus told Reuters that drones that were “probably American” had bombed the positions of Iraqi factions between Albu Kamal and Tanf, as well as Syrian military positions.

The commander, who is not Syrian and spoke on condition of anonymity, said the strike had killed and injured some Iraqi fighters but he did not give any numbers.

Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces, a grouping of mostly Iran-backed Shi’ite paramilitaries, said a U.S. air strike on the Iraqi border with Syria killed 22 of its members and wounded 12 others.

“At 22:00 last night a U.S. plane hit a fixed headquarters of the Popular Mobilisation Forces’ 45th and 46th brigades defending the border strip with Syria using two guided missiles which led to the martyrdom of 22 fighters,” it said in a statement.

It demanded an explanation from the United States.

“No member of the U.S.-led coalition carried out strikes near Albu Kamal,” Major Josh Jacques, a U.S. Central Command spokesman, told Reuters.

The U.S.-led coalition uses air power and special forces to back an alliance of Syrian Arab and Kurdish militia fighting Islamic State northeast of Albu Kamal. U.S. forces also are based around the Tanf crossing, southwest of the town in the Syrian desert near the borders of Iraq and Jordan.

President Bashar al-Assad’s army, with the help of Iran-backed militias including Hezbollah and Iraqi groups, drove Islamic State from Albu Kamal and its environs last year but the jihadists have since staged attacks there.

The Popular Mobilisation Forces have been officially included in Iraq’s governmental forces but many of them still maintain loyalties to their former leaders and political groups. They said the base that was hit was 700 meters into Syrian territory and the Syrian government was aware of their presence.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. military was concerned that Popular Mobilisation Forces could retaliate against American forces in Iraq. The official said the Pentagon was going out of its way to publicly make clear that it was not involved in the strike in order to minimize the risk of retaliation.

The United States acknowledges that it has about 5,200 troops in Iraq that are part of a coalition fighting Islamic State militants.

“OCCUPYING FORCES”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said unidentified planes had struck Lebanon’s Shi’ite Hezbollah and other allied foreign militias around Albu Kamal.

The UK-based Observatory said the strikes had killed 52 people. Reuters could not independently verify the Observatory’s report of casualties.

Asked about the reported air strikes, an Israeli military spokeswoman said: “We do not comment on foreign reports.”

Throughout Syria’s seven-year war, Israel has carried out scores of strikes within the neighboring country against what it describes as Hezbollah or Iranian targets.

Israel, alarmed about the clout of arch enemies Iran and Hezbollah, has pressed Russia, Assad’s other key ally, to make sure Tehran does not entrench its military sway in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his cabinet he had “repeated and clarified” his Syria policy in weekend phone calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“First of all, Iran must clear out of all of Syria,” Netanyahu said on Sunday, according to a statement from his office. “Secondly, we will take action, and are already taking action, against the attempted military entrenchment of Iran and its proxies, both close to the border and deep within Syria.”

In an interview last week, Assad called Hezbollah “a basic element” in the war and said “the need for these military forces will continue for a long time”.

He said the United States was an occupying power in Syria and that his state supported “any act of resistance, whether against terrorists or against occupying forces, regardless of their nationality.”

(Reporting By Laila Bassam, Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Ulf Laessing and Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad; Editing by William Maclean and Bill Trott)