A pair of Israeli airstrikes early yesterday 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 rockets fired from Gaza that reached as far as the Tel Aviv heartland as Islamic Jihad vowed further revenge.
The military said Abu el-Atta was the mastermind of recent attacks against Israel and the militant group’s top commander in Gaza.
Meanwhile, Syrian officials said an Israeli airstrike in the capital, Damascus, targeted another Islamic Jihad commander, Akram al-Ajouri, who was not harmed.
Syria’s state-run news agency said Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at al-Ajouri’s home, killing his son and granddaughter.
The Israeli military had no comment.
The sudden surge in violence looked to awaken Israel’s increasingly open conflict with Iran and its proxies in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued a series of warnings about alleged Iranian aggression.
He has also been criticized by residents along the southern border and political rivals for a tepid response to recent militant attacks.
His Security Cabinet held a lengthy emergency meeting to discuss further action.
Afterward, speaking alongside Israeli Defense Forces Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, Netanyahu said Israel had no interest in escalation, but would do everything necessary to defend itself against people like Abu el-Atta, whom he described as an “arch-terrorist” and “the main generator of terrorism from the Gaza Strip.”
“He was in the midst of plotting additional attacks these very days. He was a ticking bomb,” Netanyahu said.
The airstrikes come at a tenuous time politically for Israel, as 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.
Gantz said he had been briefed on the airstrike in advance, calling it “the right decision.”
Abu el-Atta’s relatives and the Islamic Jihad said the woman killed in the strike was Abu el-Atta’s wife and the two wounded were their children.
Minutes after the Iran-backed Palestinian group confirmed the death, barrages of rockets were fired toward 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, just meters from a passing vehicle. In another, a rocket pierced the roof of a residential home.
The military said more than 50 rockets were fired in just a few hours, with 20 intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system. There were no Israeli casualties.
In response, Israel shut down crossing points into Gaza and reduced the permissible fishing area off the territory’s coast to 6 nautical miles (11km).
Schools were closed and people were instructed to stay home in communities stretching from the Gaza border all the way to Tel Aviv, about 90km away. Public shelters were opened and restrictions placed on large gatherings.
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