Israeli air strikes have targeted senior Islamic Jihad commanders in Gaza and Syria, escalating Israel’s confrontation with Iran across the region and threatening to unleash another devastating round of cross-border violence with Palestinian militants.
In eastern Gaza, the Israeli strike killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife, setting off a furious barrage of dozens of rocket attacks reaching as far as the Tel Aviv heartland as Islamic Jihad vowed further revenge.
The Israeli military said Abu el-Atta was the mastermind of recent attacks against it and the militant group’s senior commander in Gaza.
Syrian officials said an Israeli air strike in the capital Damascus targeted another Islamic Jihad commander, Akram al-Ajouri, but he was unharmed.
The state-run news agency said Israeli planes fired three missiles at al-Ajouri’s home, killing his son and granddaughter. The Israeli military had no comment.
The sudden surge in violence looks likely to awaken Israel’s increasingly open conflict with Iran and its proxies in the region. Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued a series of warnings recently about alleged Iranian aggression.
He has also been criticised by southern border residents and political rivals for a tepid response to recent militant attacks. His Security Cabinet held a lengthy emergency meeting to discuss further action.
Mr Netanyahu said afterwards, speaking alongside military chief Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, that el-Atta, an “arch terrorist, was the main generator of terrorism from the Gaza Strip”.
“He was in the midst of plotting additional attacks these very days,” Mr Netanyahu said. “He was a ticking bomb.”
The air strikes come at a tenuous time politically for Israel, as Mr Netanyahu leads a caretaker government after two inconclusive elections.
His chief challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, is trying to build a coalition government of his own. Mr Gantz said the air strike was “the right decision”.
A successful military operation could bolster Mr Netanyahu as he seeks to hold on to power — especially if he is indicted on corruption charges.
Israel’s attorney general is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks, and an indictment would increase pressure on him to step aside. Mr Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as the only leader capable of steering the country through its many security challenges.
The Gaza air strike took place overnight, killing Abu el-Atta as he slept at home.
Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, told reporters that Abu el-Atta was responsible for several recent rocket attacks on southern Israel and 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.
He added that the air strike had destroyed only the floor of the building in the Shejaeya neighbourhood, in the eastern part of Gaza City, to minimise collateral damage.
His relatives and Islamic Jihad said the woman killed in the strike was Abu el-Atta’s wife and the two wounded were their children.
The militant group said 42-year-old Abu el-Atta was undergoing “a heroic act” when he was assassinated.
Abu el-Atta’s father said the Islamic Jihad commander had been in hiding in recent weeks fearing he would be targeted.
Minutes after the Iran-backed Palestinian group confirmed the death, barrages of rockets were fired towards Israel.
Air raid sirens continued to go off throughout the morning as far as Tel Aviv. In one instance, a rocket landed on a highway, landing yards from a passing vehicle.
The military said more than 50 rockets were fired in a few hours, with 20 intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system. There were no Israeli casualties.