JERUSALEM – An Israeli airstrike in the Gaza Strip has killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta, a senior official with the Islamic Jihad militant group, setting off the worst bout of fighting in recent months. Islamic Jihad is one of several groups fighting Israel, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
A look at the Islamic Jihad movement:
SECOND TO HAMAS
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.
Hamas, which seized control of Gaza in 2007 from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority, is often limited in its ability to act because it bears responsibility for running day-to-day affairs of the impoverished territory. Islamic Jihad has no such duties and has emerged as the more militant faction, occasionally even undermining Hamas' authority.
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 organization by the U.S. State Department, European Union and other governments.
Other militant groups in the Middle East and beyond also use the name Islamic Jihad, but the moniker is meant to imply a global, rather than a local jihad, and the groups are largely unrelated.
Israeli officials described Abu el-Atta as a commander in the group's armed wing and the mastermind of recent attacks against Israel and the militant group's top commander in Gaza. His death was the first high-profile assassination of an Islamic Jihad figure by Israel since the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip.
In a sign of its rising clout, Islamic Jihad leaders paid their first independent visit to Cairo last month to meet with Egyptian intelligence officials, who serve as mediators with Israel. Abu el-Atta was part of that delegation.
THE IRANIAN CONNECTION
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.
Although its base is Gaza, Islamic Jihad also has leadership in Beirut and Damascus, where it maintains close ties with Iranian officials. Another alleged Israeli missile strike Tuesday targeted Akram al-Ajouri, one of the group's top officials in Syria.
"He is the real direct connection between Islamic Jihad and Iran, on the one hand, and the person who gives instructions to the Gaza Strip on the other hand," said Giora Eiland, a former head of Israel's National Security Council.
As Iran's proxy, the militant group in Gaza is key to Tehran's strategy of keeping pressure on Israel on all fronts, said Kobi Michael, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank. "In their eyes, any stabilization is something that strengthens Israel, and they don't want that."
A DELICATE BALANCE
Since seizing power in 2007, Hamas has fought three wars with Israel, often with support from Islamic Jihad fighters. But Hamas has largely upheld a recent truce with Israel that was brokered by Egypt and the U.N. to try to improve conditions for the territory's 2 million residents.
Islamic Jihad militants have challenged Hamas by firing rockets, often without claiming responsibility, to raise its profile among Palestinians while Hamas maintains the cease-fire.
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, Michael said.
"If Hamas will try to retaliate against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas immediately will be accused that they are harming the national struggle against Israel," he said,
Ultimately, Hamas will have the final say in how long — and how violent — this round of fighting will last.
Mkhaimar Abusada, a political science professor at Gaza's al-Azhar University, said Hamas realizes "the situation in Gaza is disastrous and a military confrontation will bring very disastrous results."
Abu el-Atta's killing comes at a sensitive time for Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads a caretaker government after two inconclusive elections and after he twice failed to form a coalition.
That task is now being pursued by former army chief Benny Gantz who has just over a week before his time runs up, at which point Israel's ceremonial president can either select another lawmaker to try to form a government or else set in motion what would be an unprecedented third election in less than a year.
Netanyahu has portrayed himself as the only leader capable of meeting Israel's security challenges and has tried to paint Gantz as weak despite his military bona fides. Netanyahu briefed Gantz on the security situation, according to the prime minister's office.
Critics questioned the strike's timing. Amid the political deadlock, it could boost Netanyahu's standing, which has been marred by a series of corruption allegations and potential indictment expected in the coming weeks.
"It's hard not to ask questions about timing," tweeted Stav Shaffir of the dovish Democratic Union party. "Above every decision hovers a cloud of suspicions."
Akram reported from Gaza City.