Israeli airstrike kills Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza home

Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY

Israeli airstrikes Tuesday killed a prominent senior commander of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip, potentially threatening a major escalation of Israel’s of cross-border violence with Iran-backed Palestinians. 

Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife died overnight in an airstrike on a house in Shajaiyah, Gaza City, Israel's prime minister's office said. Israel's Defense Forces said Abu el-Atta was the militant group's top commander in Gaza and had orchestrated several recent attacks against Israel. Islamic Jihad vowed revenge.

Separately, in Syria, officials Tuesday said an Israeli airstrike in the capital, Damascus, targeted another Islamic Jihad commander, Akram al-Ajouri.

Al-Ajouri was not harmed, but the confrontation risks another round of hostilities with Iranian-backed militants who operate in Syria. 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.

Islamic Jihad gets its funding, weapons and guidance from Iran. It often carries out attacks independently of Hamas, the larger militant group that controls Gaza. 

Iranian officials rarely, if ever, comment on the activities of its proxies in the region. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is leading a caretaker government after two inconclusive elections, has been criticized by residents on Israel's southern border with Gaza and political rivals for a tepid response to recent militant attacks.

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After an emergency Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that el-Atta "was in the midst of plotting additional attacks these very days. ... He was a ticking bomb."

Israeli firefighter trucks douse a burning factory in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, after it was reportedly hit with rockets fired from the Gaza Strip on Tuesday. Israel's military killed a commander of Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad in a strike on his home in Gaza early in the morning, prompting retaliatory barrages of rocket fire from the Gaza Strip towards Israel where residents ran to bomb shelters while air raid sirens rang out in various parts of the country.

Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's chief challenger in the election and a former military chief, said that the airstrike in Gaza City was "the right decision."

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El-Atta's two children were wounded in the airstrike.

Islamic Jihad said el-Atta, 42, was undergoing "a heroic act" when he was killed.  

In all, four Palestinians have been killed in Tuesday’s fighting.

Israel's military said that minutes after the Iran-backed Palestinian group confirmed the death, barrages of rockets were fired toward Israel. 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.

Israel later started a second wave of airstrikes against Islamic Jihad targets. 

The sudden surge in violence may awaken Israel’s increasingly open conflict with Iran and its proxies in the region and comes as Netanyahu seeks to hold onto power – especially if he is indicted on corruption charges in the coming weeks. 

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Israel shut down crossing points into Gaza and reduced the permissible fishing area off the territory’s coast to 6 nautical miles. Schools were closed, and people were instructed to stay home in communities stretching from the Gaza border all the way to Tel Aviv, about 55 miles away. Public shelters were opened and restrictions placed on gatherings.

The attacks come at a tense moment for Islamic Jihad’s Iranian patrons, who are struggling under crippling U.S. sanctions after President Donald Trump pulled out of the nuclear deal with Iran and world powers and reimposed economic penalties on Iran. 

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In Damascus, a military official said Israeli warplanes fired three missiles toward the Syrian capital, with one being destroyed by Syria’s air defenses before reaching its target. The two others struck the home of al-Ajouri, the official said.

A second man identified as Abdullah Yousef Hassan was killed and nine civilians wounded, the unidentified official said according to Syrian state media.

Israel frequently strikes Iranian interests inside Syria and has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in the course of Syria’s civil war, now in its ninth year. Tuesday’s attack was a rare assassination attempt of a Palestinian militant in the Syrian capital.

Since Hamas took over Gaza by force in 2007 from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, Israel and Gaza militants have fought three wars.  

The last war, in 2014, lasted for 50 days. 

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Israeli strike kills Islamic Jihad commander Bahaa Abu el-Atta in Gaza