EXPLAINER: What is driving the current violence between Israel and the Gaza Strip?

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TEL AVIV, Israel – Israeli and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip exchanged fire on Saturday in the worst spasm of cross-border violence since an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas last year.

Israeli airstrikes have killed 11 people, including a senior commander of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, an Iran-backed militant group, who was killed in a targeted attack.

This comes after the arrest of another senior Islamic Jihad leader in the West Bank this week in a month-long Israeli operation to detain Palestinians suspected of the attack.

Militants have fired dozens of rockets into Israeli cities and towns, disrupting the lives of tens of thousands of people.

Here’s a look at the latest round of violence:

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

Hamas, which took control of Gaza from the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority in 2007, is often limited in its ability to act because it bears responsibility for the day-to-day affairs of the impoverished territory. Islamic Jihad has no such duties and has emerged as the more militant faction, occasionally undermining even Hamas’ authority.

The group was formed in 1981 with the aim of establishing an Islamic Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and all of present-day Israel. It is classified as a terrorist organization by the US Department of State, the European Union and other governments. Like Hamas, Islamic Jihad is sworn to destroy Israel.

Israel’s nemesis Iran provides Islamic Jihad with training, expertise and money, but most of the group’s weapons are produced locally. In recent years, it has developed an arsenal to rival that of Hamas, with longer-range missiles capable of hitting central Israel’s metropolitan Tel Aviv area. Air raid sirens went off in the suburbs 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 meeting with Iranian officials in Tehran as Israel began its operation in Gaza on Friday.

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

Al-Jabari, 50, was a member of Islamic Jihad’s “Military Council,” the group’s decision-making body in Gaza. During the 2021 war, he was responsible for Islamic Jihad militant activities in Gaza City and the northern Gaza Strip. Israel said it was preparing an anti-tank missile attack on Israel.

His death followed the arrest by Israel earlier this week of a senior Islamic Jihad commander in the West Bank. 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 broaden its capabilities.

Al-Saadi spent a total of 15 years in multiple stints in Israeli prisons for being an active member of Islamic Jihad. Israel killed two of his sons, who were also Islamic Jihad fighters, in 2002 and demolished his home during a bitter battle in the West Bank city of Jenin that same year.

“Once you meet the commanders, it will immediately affect the entire organization,” said Zvika Haimovich, the former chief of the Israeli military’s Air Defense Forces.

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

Since seizing power in 2007, Hamas has fought four wars with Israel, often with the support of Islamic Jihad fighters. Barring a flare-up earlier this year, the border has been largely calm since last year’s 11-day war, and Hamas appears to be keeping to the sidelines in this current conflagration, which could prevent it from escalating into an all-out war.

Islamic Jihad militants have challenged Hamas by firing rockets, often without admitting responsibility, in order to raise their profile among Palestinians while Hamas maintains the ceasefire. Israel blames Hamas for all rockets fired from Gaza.

Hamas must walk a tightrope to contain Islamic Jihad’s fire on Israel while avoiding the wrath of the Palestinians if it moves against the group. As with previous flare-ups, Hamas will have the final say on how long — and how violent — this round of fighting will last.

The current fighting comes as Israel is mired in a protracted political crisis, which this fall will send voters to the polls for the fifth time in less than four years.

Interim leader Yair Lapid took office earlier this summer after the ideologically diverse government he helped form collapsed, prompting snap elections.

Lapid, a centrist former TV host and author, lacks the security background that many Israelis see as essential to their leadership. His political fortune could rest on the current fighting and either get a boost if he can present himself as a capable leader, or take a hit from a protracted operation as Israelis try to enjoy the final weeks of summer.

Lapid hopes to oust former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a security hawk on trial over corruption charges, in the upcoming vote.

Akram reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip. Associated Press writer Emily Rose in Jerusalem contributed.

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