Israel carried out a deadly airstrike on a residence used by a leading Palestinian militant in Gaza on Tuesday morning and missed a strike on a second top target in Syria, sparking a barrage of retaliatory missile fire from the restive Palestinian enclave.
The initial Israeli strike reportedly killed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander Baha Abu al-Ata and his wife as they slept. The group responded by firing more than 150 rockets at Israel, injuring several Israelis.
Separately, Syria’s state-run news agency reported that Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at the home of Akram al-Ajouri, also a member of PIJ’s leadership living in exile. The militant leader was not harmed, but his son and granddaughter were killed, the report said.
By the afternoon, Israel Defense Forces had carried out additional airstrikes in Gaza and the country was on emergency footing, preparing for major escalation.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Abu al-Ata was a senior commander responsible for one of the main sectors of the militant movement’s area of operations in the northern Gaza Strip. He was reportedly planning new missions targeting Israeli soldiers on the tense Gaza border.
Mr. Netanyahu met with his senior advisers and Israel Security Agency head Nadav Argaman and said the message of the strikes was that no one should think they can get away with targeting Israel.
“Terrorists think they can hit civilians and hide behind civilians,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “We showed that we can hit the terrorists with minimal damage to civilians.”
The Associated Press reported that Mr. Netanyahu’s government had approved the strikes 10 days earlier and waited for “optimal conditions” to hit Abu al-Ata while minimizing civilian casualties. Mr. Netanyahu said Israel was not interested in escalation but warned: “This could take time.”
Israeli officials say the Iranian-backed PIJ was responsible for rocket fire early this month and also last year. Israel Defense Forces blamed al-Ata for rocket fire that targeted areas near the Gaza Strip, for developing “killer drones” and for carrying out sniper attacks.
Israel has carried out precision strikes against other Hamas figures, including Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of the militant group killed in 2004. Israel has attempted to kill Hamas commander Mohammed Deif several times.
It was not immediately clear why al-Ata was targeted amid rising Israeli-Iranian tensions. Israel is also in the midst of an uncertain political season, with the long-ruling Mr. Netanyahu serving as interim prime minister while a center-left opposition tries to form a coalition government without him.
Mr. Netanyahu gave Naftali Bennett, leader of a right-wing party, the defense portfolio over the weekend in an effort to outmaneuver his rival for prime minister, former Gen. Benny Gantz. Mr. Gantz and his allies received slightly more votes in the September elections, but he has not been able to form a government coalition after Mr. Netanyahu tried and failed. Israel could be headed for an unprecedented third election to try to resolve the stalemate in the Knesset.
A senior Jordanian official condemned Israel for launching the attack, while the European Union criticized the PIJ for launching retaliatory missiles at civilian populations. Egypt, which has often mediated talks between Israel and Palestinian groups, appealed for calm and said it had been in contact with U.S. and European intelligence forces on how to deal with the crisis.
Tensions with Iran
Even in the face of domestic political uncertainty, security officials have warned about rising tensions with Iran and the threat of further aggression from Tehran-allied Palestinian militant groups.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi warned in late October that Tehran was a key strategic threat and that the northern and southern fronts were fragile and could deteriorate into war.
In the north, Israel faces a threat from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement, which has more than 150,000 rockets stockpiled to counter an Israeli offensive. Israel struck a Hezbollah “killer drone” team in August, and Hezbollah fired an anti-tank missile across the border in response to what it claimed was an Israeli drone infiltrating Beirut.
Avigdor Lieberman resigned as defense minister a year ago, saying the Netanyahu government was being too cautious in responding to Gaza threats. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Bennett’s move against al-Ata resulted in immediate rocket fire that began about 6 a.m.
Schools were canceled as far north as Tel Aviv, and the Home Front Command urged people to avoid large public gatherings. Sports events were relocated to the north, and wedding parties were forced to find new venues. Roads to the southern cities of Ashdod and Ashkelon were mostly deserted.
A rocket that landed near the usually crowded Route 4 wounded three people. Farther south in Netiv HaAsara, rockets streamed from Gaza over the small border community and were intercepted by the Iron Dome.
Locals expressed hope that a war would not break out. Newly recruited soldiers stood guard on roads and at entrances to communities to make sure people did not approach the border. McDonald’s closed several of its branches, and shopping centers emptied quickly.
The PIJ appears reticent to fire rockets at Tel Aviv, even though it has sophisticated rocket technology provided through support from Iran. Nevertheless, several of its rockets landed as far as 30 miles inside Israel, setting off sirens just south of Tel Aviv in Holon.
Hamas refrained from joining the missile barrage in the morning, but Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said Israel’s attack would not dissuade his organization from fighting the “Israeli occupation” and “will not pass without a punishment.”
Hamas appears to be weighing its options. If it joins Palestinian Islamic Jihad, then it could risk a larger war with Israel and put a target on its leadership as well. If it does not respond, then the PIJ will look stronger.
Hamas has ruled the Gaza Strip since 2006 and fought three wars with Israel since then, but it is also isolated, blockaded and starved of cash.
⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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