Palestinians fire rockets after Israel assassinates Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza

Raf Sanchez
Shops and schools were closed in Tel Aviv for the first time since 2014 as Palestinians fired rockets - REUTERS

Israel assassinated a senior Islamic Jihad commander inside the Gaza Strip early on Tuesday, prompting a barrage of retaliatory rockets from Palestinian militant groups and leaving both sides bracing for serious escalation. 

Israeli warplanes killed Baha Abu al-Ata with an airstrike in Shejaiyah, near Gaza City. The Israeli military said al-Ata was responsible for several recent rocket strikes and was planning “to commit immediate terror attacks”. 

Islamic Jihad acknowledged al-Ata’s death and said his wife had also been killed. The group said that one of its senior members had been also targeted in a suspected Israeli airstrike in Damascus, where the Palestinian group has its headquarters. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) refused to say if it was behind the strike in Syria.

“We are going to war,” said Ziad al-Nakhala, the secretary general of Islamic Jihad. “Netanyahu has crossed all the red lines in the assassination of al-Quds Brigades commander Baha Abu al-Ata. We we will respond forcefully.”

Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata was killed in Gaza by an Israeli strike Credit: Photo by STR/AFP via Getty Images

Within hours of the Israeli strike in Gaza, Palestinian militant groups began firing an intense barrage of rockets into southern Israel, sending families running to bomb shelters as warning sirens wailed. 

There were no immediate reports of casualties but the Israeli military ordered the closure of all schools and non-essential businesses in southern and central Israel, including in Tel Aviv, the country’s financial capital. 

It was the first time schools and shops have been shut in Tel Aviv since the 2014 Gaza War.

Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, described al-Ata as "a ticking bomb" who needed to be killed before he could launch new attacks against Israel. 

He warned that the fighting could continue for an extended period. "This can take time. We need patience, we need cool heads, we have to enable the IDF to do the job," he said.

A spokesman for IDF said Israel was “prepared for several days of battle” and would use the Iron Dome missile defence system to intercept rockets and strike back in Gaza if the rocket fire continued. 

At least 75 rockets have been fired, the IDF said, and 20 of them were intercepted by Iron Dome. 

Mr Netanyahu approved the strike in Gaza Credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The outbreak of fighting comes at a sensitive political moment in Israel as the country struggles to form a government following a September election that saw Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party essentially tied with Blue and White, a centrist coalition led by former general Benny Gantz. 

Mr Netanyahu tried and failed to form a majority coalition and Mr Gantz has one week left to form a government of his own. 

Mr Gantz said his political rival “made the right decision” to approve the strike in Gaza. “Every terrorist who threatens our security should know that he will end up dead,” Mr Gantz said.

However, some Left-wing and Arab-Israeli politicians accused Mr Netanyahu of seeking to benefit politically from the escalation of violence. 

“A cynical man who lost two consecutive elections will leave only scorched earth in a desperate attempt to remain in office,” said Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, the main party representing Israel’s Palestinian minority.   

Mr Netanyahu rejected those claims on Tuesday and said the strike had been approved 10 days by Israel's security cabinet. He said the final decision on timing was made by the military and intelligence officials. 

Islamic Jihad is a smaller and more radical faction within Gaza which cooperates with Hamas but also sometimes tries to outflank the larger militant group by taking a more aggressive stance against Israel.

Unlike Hamas, it is not responsible for running Gaza and therefore has a freer hand to confront Israel without worrying about public opinion in the Strip, which is largely opposed to another war. 

Islamic Jihad is estimated to have around 6,000 fighters in Gaza, according to the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank. It receives millions of dollars a year in support from Iran and its top leadership is based in Damascus. 

Al-Ata was responsible “for most of the terror attacks in the last year from the Gaza Strip”, according to the Israeli military. 

The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, said he moved constantly inside Gaza to try to evade Israel. “He behaved like a haunted man,” said Nadav Argaman, the head of the Shin Bet.