What is driving the current Israel-Gaza violence?

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Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip have exchanged fire in the worst bout of cross-border violence since an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas last year.

Israel has carried out several deadly air strikes, among them the targeted killing of a senior commander from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed militant group.

Here is a look at the latest round of violence:

– In Hamas’s shadow

Islamic Jihad is the smaller of the two main Palestinian militant groups in the Gaza Strip, and is vastly outnumbered by the ruling Hamas group. But it enjoys direct financial and military backing from Iran, and has become the driving force in engaging in rocket attacks and other confrontations with Israel.

Rockets fired by Palestinian militants towards Israel in Gaza City
Rockets are fired by Palestinian militants towards Israel in Gaza City (Fatima Shbair/AP)

The group was founded in 1981 with the aim of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and all of what is now Israel. It is designated a terrorist organisation by the US State Department, European Union and other governments. Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad is sworn to Israel’s destruction.

– The Iranian connection

Israel’s archenemy Iran supplies Islamic Jihad with training, expertise and money, but most of the group’s weapons are locally produced. In recent years, it has developed an arsenal equal to that of Hamas, with longer-range rockets capable of striking central Israel’s Tel Aviv metropolitan area. Air raid sirens went off in the suburbs just south of Tel Aviv on Friday, although no rockets appear to have hit the area.

Although its base is Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has leadership in Beirut and Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials.

Ziad al-Nakhalah, the group’s top leader, was in Tehran meeting Iranian officials when Israel began its operation in Gaza on Friday.

– Targeting commanders

This is not the first time Israel has killed Islamic Jihad leaders in Gaza. The commander it killed on Friday, Taiseer al-Jabari, replaced Bahaa Abu el-Atta, who was killed by Israel in a 2019 strike. His death had been the first high-profile assassination of an Islamic Jihad figure by Israel since the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip.

The damaged apartment of Taiseer al-Jabari the Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, following an Israeli air strikes in Gaza City
The damaged apartment of Taiseer al-Jabari, the Islamic Jihad commander for northern Gaza, following an Israeli air strike in Gaza City (Fatima Shbair/AP)

His death came on the heels of the arrest by Israel of a senior Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank earlier this week. Bassam al-Saadi, 62, is a senior Islamic Jihad official in the northern West Bank. According to Israeli media, al-Saadi was working to deepen the group’s reach in the West Bank and expand its capabilities.

Al-Saadi spent a total of 15 years over several stints in Israeli jails for being an active Islamic Jihad member. Israel killed two of his sons who were also Islamic Jihad militants in separate incidents in 2002, and destroyed his home during a fierce battle in the West Bank city of Jenin the same year.

“Once you will hit the commanders it will affect immediately all the organisation,” said Zvika Haimovich, the former head of the Israeli military’s air defence force.

“It immediately creates a big mess in the Jihad.”

– A delicate balance

Palestinian women react next to the rubble of destroyed residential building which was hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza
Palestinian women next to the rubble of a destroyed residential building which was hit by Israeli air strikes in Gaza (Fatima Shbair/AP)

Islamic Jihad militants have challenged Hamas by firing rockets, often without claiming responsibility, to raise its profile among Palestinians while Hamas maintains the ceasefire. Israel holds Hamas responsible for all rocket fire coming from Gaza.

Hamas must walk a tightrope between restraining Islamic Jihad’s fire at Israel while avoiding the ire of Palestinians if it cracks down on the group. Like in past flare-ups, Hamas will have the final say in how long – and how violent – this round of fighting will last.

– Caretaker leader

The current fighting comes as Israel is mired in a protracted political crisis that is sending voters to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years in the autumn.

Caretaker leader Yair Lapid took over earlier this summer after the ideologically diverse government he helped form collapsed, triggering the new elections.

Israel’s caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid
Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid (Gil Cohen-Magen/Pool via AP)

Mr Lapid hopes to edge out former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk who is on trial for corruption charges, in the upcoming vote.

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