At least 50 rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip into Israel after an Israeli airstrike targeted and killed a senior Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza early on Tuesday in the most serious escalation of violence in months.
In northern Gaza, the Israeli strike killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife, as Islamic Jihad vowed further revenge.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a live statement on Tuesday that Abu el-Atta was the mastermind of many recent attacks against Israel and a “ticking bomb.”
Less than two hours after the strike, sirens sounded in central and southern Israel warning of incoming rockets from Gaza. The Israeli military said its “Iron Dome” aerial defense system had intercepted about 20 rockets. The military released footage of a rocket hitting an Israeli highway and narrowly missing two cars. Schools and businesses were closed across southern Israel.
“The barrage of rockets being fired by Islamic Jihad in #Gaza at Israeli civilians after our surgical strike on their commander shows exactly why he was targeted in the first place,” the Israel Defense Forces said on Twitter.
Throughout the day, Israeli jets targeted further Islamic Jihad sites in Gaza, including a training facility and underground weapons production and storage areas, the military said. The Israeli Air Force also said that it killed two fighters from the organization’s rocket launching unit.
The Islamic Jihad said Abu el-Atta, 42, was undergoing “a heroic act” when he was assassinated.
In a statement, the militant group said: “These terrorist crimes are aggression and a declaration of war against the Palestinian people, and the enemy bears full responsibility for them.”
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Islamic Jihad is the second-largest militant group in Gaza and is supported by Iran. It and Hamas, which runs Gaza, vow to destroy Israel and are considered terrorist groups by the U.S.
A spokesman for Hamas warned that Israel’s actions could provoke more violence.
“The Zionist enemy’s assassination of the leader Mujahid Bahaa Abu al-Atta is a dangerous escalation, and the continuation of the series of aggression and criminality against our people and its valiant resistance,” said Fawzi Barhoum.
In a sign that it may want to reduce the potential for a wider conflict, Israel, which usually holds Hamas responsible for Gaza, has avoided striking Hamas targets or even mentioning the name of the organization in briefings.
“Hamas is not interested in being dragged into war by Islamic Jihad or Israel. I think we can see a lot in the fact that they are not participating yet, nor being struck by Israel,” said Assaf Orion, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and a brigadier general in the reserves.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO executive committee in the West Bank, called the targeted killing of Abu el-Atta “reckless and criminal.”
The Israeli airstrike coincided with an attempted separate attack on another Islamic Jihad leader, Akram Al-Ajouri, in Damascus. Syrian state media said Israel was behind the attack. Al-Ajouri survived but Islamic Jihad claimed that the attack killed one of his sons.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene said the attack destroyed a three-story building in Damascus, located on a main highway about 50 yards across from the Lebanese Embassy.
In his statement, Netanyahu appealed to the Israeli public for patience and said that the operation could take time.
“Israel is not interested in escalation, but we will do everything required to protect ourselves,” Netanyahu said.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, told reporters that Abu el-Atta was responsible for a number of recent rocket attacks on southern Israel and claimed that he was actively planning new attacks.
“We essentially over the last week have been waiting for the opportune moment to conduct this surgical strike,” he said.
Conricus added that the airstrike had been carried out with a warplane that destroyed only the floor of the building where Abu el-Atta was hiding in order to minimize “collateral damage.”
Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005 but keeps it under a blockade, citing security concerns. Aid officials warn that the 2 million Palestinians living in the narrow strip of land face imminent humanitarian collapse.
Netanyahu is currently Israel’s caretaker prime minister. His rival is now attempting to form a coalition government after Netanyahu failed to do so following an election in September.
The attacks also come at a tense moment for Islamic Jihad’s Iranian patrons, who are struggling under crippling U.S. sanctions.
Iran’s regional influence is also being challenged by unprecedented, economically-driven mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon — two countries where Tehran wields major influence. The protests are creating unrest that Tehran fears would spark a backlash against Iran-backed proxy militias in those countries. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused the U.S. and its regional allies of fomenting the Iraq and Lebanon unrest.
Associated Press contributed.