Warplanes killed Baha Abu al-Ata at his wife with an airstrike in Shejaiyah, near Gaza City early this morning. Within hours, Palestinian militant groups fired 50 rockets into southern Israel, including Tel Aviv, sending families running for bomb shelters as warning sirens wailed. Islamic Jihad acknowledged al-Ata’s death and said on of its senior members had been also targeted in a suspected Israeli airstrike in Damascus.
Israeli officials described al-Ata as a “ticking bomb” and have blamed him for a string of recent cross-border rocket, drone and sniper attacks.
Military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said fighter jets conducted a strike at dawn on a building in Shajaiya against the leader who they believed was planning an imminent attack on Israel.
He told reporters: “At approximately 4am we conducted a surgical strike and were able to take care of an immediate threat, a ticking bomb, conducting a pre-emptive strike aimed to kill a senior military commander Bahaa Abu al-Ata.
“We have intelligence he was trying to conduct an attack in the coming days.
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“A combination of sniper, IEDs and rocket fire aimed at Israeli troops possibly Israeli civilians.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Conricus added the military had deployed additional forces to boost their defences against a possible ground attack and said that while Israel is not planning to pursue a programme of targeted killings, the latest escalation in tension had “the hallmarks of an extended event.”
The Israeli government said the killing of al-Ata was recommended by Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs, and was approved by the country’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Prime Minister’s office said: “He was responsible for many terrorist attacks and the firing of rockets at the State of Israel in recent months and had intended to carry out imminent attacks.”
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But Ziad al-Nakhala, the secretary general of Islamic Jihad, lashed out at Mr Netanyahu, and warned they will “respond forcefully”.
He said: “We are going to war.
“Netanyahu has crossed all the red lines in the assassination of al-Quds Brigades commander Baha Abu al-Ata. We we will respond forcefully.”
There were no immediate reports of casualties from the barrage of retaliatory fire, but the attacks have forced Israel’s military to close all schools and non-essential businesses in southern and central Israel, including in Tel Aviv.
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It was the first time schools and shops have been shut in the country’s financial capital since the Gaza War in 2014.
Militant group Hamas, which runs Gaza issued a stern warning to Israel.
In a statement, the group warned the country “bears full responsibility for all consequences of this escalation and promised Al-Ata’s death “will not go unpunished”.
The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) warned the country was “prepared for several days of battle”, and said it would use the Iron Dome missile defence system to intercept rockets and strike back in Gaza if the rocket fire continued.
This year, Israel’s military and militants in Gaza have teetered on the edge of a major war following several cross-border incidents.
Since the Gaza rallies began in March 2018, nearly 270 Palestinians have been killed and thousands more wounded by Israeli troops.
The latest outbreak of violence comes at a crucial political for Israel as the country struggles to form a government following the election in September, where Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party essentially tied with Blue and White, a centrist coalition led by former general Benny Gantz.
The Prime Minister tried to form a majority government but failed, and Mr Gantz has one week left to form a government of his own.