Israeli security forces killed a senior leader of the militant Palestinian group Islamic Jihad in a targeted airstrike in the Gaza Strip early Tuesday, sparking retaliatory rocket fire from the enclave and raising fears of escalating reprisals.
Warning sirens sounded in multiple Israeli population centers, including Tel Aviv, sending thousands to shelters as rockets struck highways, buildings and vehicles. Schools, workplaces and public transport were closed in large areas of south and central Israel.
More than 190 rockets were launched, according to Israeli media, in a barrage that lasted into the evening. At least 60 of the projectiles were intercepted, but at least one residence and an office were hit. Several minor injuries were reported; an 8-year-old girl was reportedly in stable condition after losing consciousness during the barrage.
In Gaza, the pre-dawn Israeli raid killed two people, and at least 10 others were killed later in the day as Israel continued to carry out air strikes against suspected Islamic Jihad targets, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza.
Syrian state media, meantime, reported that an attack struck the house of a second Islamic Jihad leader in Damascus. The reports said that the leader, Akram al-Ajouri, was not injured but that his son and one other person were killed and 10 others were wounded. Israel declined to comment on the reports.
In the Gaza strike, the Israeli military targeted Baha Abu al-Ata, the militant commander Israel considered responsible for several previous rocket launches, on grounds that his next attack was imminent. In a televised appearance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Abu al-Ata the “chief terrorist in Gaza.”
Military officials stressed that they were targeting only Islamic Jihad sites in Gaza, hoping not to force the ruling Hamas group into the fray. The Israeli military said there was no sign that Hamas was contributing to the dozens of rocket launches.
“So far, there is some strategic posturing but on the ground I think Hamas’s behavior has been very wise,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli army spokesman. “We hope they understand that this is not for them to be involved with. [Abu al-Ata] was an annoyance for them as well.”
Photographs of the Israeli strike posted on social media showed a heavily damaged house in the east Gaza neighborhood of Shejaiya. A neighbor who asked to be identified only as Abu Muhammad said he was awoken by a blast and went out to find the bodies of Abu al-Ata and a woman he knew to be the commander’s wife.
“It was just one big explosion that made the children scream,” he said.
In a statement, Islamic Jihad confirmed that Abu al-Ata and his wife were killed. “Al-Quds Brigades, the military wing of the Islamic Jihad movement in Palestine, is mourning its martyr and one of the most prominent members of its military council and the commander of the northern region,” the group said, describing the attack as a “cowardly assassination.”
“We affirm that the response to this crime will have no limits and will be the size of the crime committed by the criminal wenemy and that the occupation will bear the consequences of this aggression,” the statement said.
The army said it carried out the joint strike with the Shin Bet security service in response to attacks directed by Abu al-Ata, including rocket launches and sniper fire. They attributed recent rocket attacks on a summer music festival and on the city of Sderot to the faction he led. His profile had been rising in Israeli media as a greater threat emanating from Gaza than Hamas, as one former general described him.
“Abu al-Ata was responsible for most of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s activity in the Gaza Strip and was a ticking bomb,” the army’s statement said. It called him an “imminent threat” who was plotting additional violence.
The overnight action was approved by Netanyahu, the statement said. Benny Gantz, a former army chief who is now the head of the Blue and White political party and is trying to form a coalition government, was informed in advance of the operation.
“The fight against terrorism is ongoing and requires moments of difficult decision-making,” he said in a statement. “The political echelon and the IDF made the right decision tonight for the security of Israeli citizens and residents of the south,” Gantz added.
Conricus said the 4 a.m. strike was based on up-to-the minute intelligence about Abu al-Ata’s movements.
“The Israeli operation was aimed to mitigate the threat and done with the approval of the cabinet and the minister of defense,” he said. “We were looking for the most opportune moment over the past week, but Baha Abu al-Ata had a habit of surrounding himself with human shields. We were waiting for a time to minimize the human casualties.”
Missiles from fighter jets struck the floor where Abu al-Ata was located, the Israeli military said. It said the operation was approved 10 days in advance and executed when intelligence alerted the army to his location.
The government has been under pressure from security hawks in recent months to resume targeted strikes against militant leaders in response to rising attacks. But Conricus said Tuesday’s operation was not a return to the strategy but rather a response to a specific threat. The use of assassinations was discussed recently in Israel’s security cabinet, and it has been a subject of disagreement between the political echelons and security establishment.
There were reports of more explosions in Gaza later in the morning as the funeral of Abu al-Ata progressed through the streets, and the Hamas Health Ministry reported three further deaths and seven injuries. The Israeli military confirmed that it had made additional strikes against a rocket-launching site and was using tanks outside Gaza to target other Islamic Jihad military locations.
Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are designated as terrorist organizations by international bodies. Israel has urged Hamas to contain the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad, which is considered more determined to launch attacks. Analysts said the extent of escalation would depend on whether Hamas joined in the retaliation for Abu al-Ata’s death.
“I don’t believe Palestinian Islamic Jihad has enough rockets to sustain a 50-day war like Hamas did in 2014, but the next few hours are critical,” said Michael Milshtein, head of the Palestinian Studies Forum at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University.
He said Baha Abu al-Ata “was a troublemaker,” young and part of a group of grass-roots militants who challenged the Islamic Jihad leadership in Gaza and Damascus.
“Hamas does not seem to be interested in reaching an open confrontation with Israel at this stage due to the difficult humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and the political crisis in Israel,” said Mokhaimer Abu Seada, a political science professor at Gaza’s al-Azhar University
Abu al-Ata had been concerned about his safety in recent weeks as he was frequently named in Israeli media as the man behind recent rocket attacks, his father told the Associated Press. He went into a hiding for a week, only appearing at home on the night of the attack, he said.
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The Washngton Post’s Hazem Balousha in Gaza and Sarah Dadouch in Beirut contributed to this report.