GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — A pair of Israeli airstrikes targeted senior Islamic Jihad commanders in Gaza and in Syria early on Tuesday, 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 dozens of rocket attacks reaching as far as the Tel Aviv heartland as Islamic Jihad vowed further revenge. The Israeli military said Abu el-Atta was the mastermind of recent attacks against it 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. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued a series of warnings recently about alleged Iranian aggression.
Netanyahu also has been criticized by southern border residents and political rivals for a tepid response to recent militant attacks. Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet held a lengthy emergency meeting to discuss further action.
Netanyahu said afterward, speaking alongside military chief, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, that el-Atta, an “arch-terrorist, was the main generator of terrorism from the Gaza Strip.”
“He was in the midst of plotting additional attacks these very days,” Netanyahu said. “He was a ticking bomb.”
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 currently trying to build a coalition government of his own. Gantz said the airstrike was “the right decision.”
A successful military operation could bolster Netanyahu as he seeks to hold onto power — especially if he is indicted on corruption charges.
Israel’s attorney general is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks, and an indictment would increase pressure on Netanyahu to step aside. Netanyahu has sought to portray himself as the only leader capable of steering the country through its many security challenges.
The Gaza airstrike took place overnight, killing Abu el-Atta as he slept at home.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, told reporters that Abu el-Atta was responsible for several recent rocket attacks on southern Israel and that he was actively planning new attacks. “We essentially over the last week have been waiting for the opportune moment to conduct this surgical strike,” he said.
Conricus said the airstrike had destroyed only the floor of the building in the Shejaeya neighborhood, in the eastern part of Gaza City, to minimize “collateral damage.”
His 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.
The militant group said the 42-year-old Abu el-Atta was undergoing “a heroic act” when he was assassinated. Abu el-Atta’s father said the Islamic Jihad commander had been in hiding in recent weeks fearing he would be targeted.
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, landing just meters from a passing vehicle.
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. Schools were closed, and people were instructed to stay home in communities stretching from the Gaza border all the way to Tel Aviv, about 90 kilometers (55 miles) away. Public shelters were opened and restrictions placed on large gatherings.
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. Conricus described Abu el-Atta as a powerful figure in Gaza who often acts alone without instruction even from Tehran.
Israel had no further plans to resume its assassinations of militant leaders — a practice that in the past has triggered heavy fighting. “There was no other choice,” Conricus said.
But at midmorning, the army said it struck two Islamic Jihad militants from the group’s rocket launching unit. It claimed a direct hit but gave no further details. The Gaza Health Ministry said a Palestinian man was killed and another wounded in that strike.
One of the rockets from Gaza hit a residential house in Netivot in southern Israel, penetrating the roof of the home, the army said. No one was hurt.
The attacks also come at a tense moment for Islamic Jihad’s Iranian patrons, who are struggling under crippling U.S. sanctions.
Iran’s regional influence is also being challenged by unprecedented, economically-driven mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon — two countries where Tehran wields major influence. The protests are creating unrest that Tehran fears would spark a backlash against Iran-backed proxy militias in those countries. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused the U.S. and its regional allies of fomenting the Iraq and Lebanon unrest.
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. Al-Ajouri’s son Muath was killed, along with his granddaughter Batoul. A second man identified as Abdullah Yousef Hassan was killed and nine civilians wounded, the unidentified official said according to Syrian state-media.
An Associated Press reporter at the scene said the attack destroyed the three-story building in Damascus, located on a main highway about 50 meters (yards) across from the Lebanese Embassy.
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 however was a rare assassination attempt of a Palestinian militant in the Syrian capital.
Just this week Netanyahu appointed hard-line politician Naftali Bennett as Israel’s new defense minister to fortify his political base. Bennett has long advocated tougher action against Palestinian militants. But Bennett only formally took office Tuesday and the military said the operation had been planned long in advance.
Netanyahu said the Cabinet approved the strike 10 days ago and waited for “a unique window of opportunity to carry out the operation in optimal conditions with maximum chances of success and minimum collateral damage.”
The operation appeared to have wide backing despite the fraught political climate and Israel’s ceremonial president, who has been working to establish a unity government between Netanyahu and Gantz, called for it not to enter the fray.
“We stand behind the security forces, who have been working for the success of this morning’s operations for a long time,” said President Reuven Rivlin. “This is no time for political squabbles.”
Since Hamas took over Gaza by force in 2007 from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, Israel and Gaza militants have fought three wars, with the third in 2014 lasting for 50 days.
Short-but-frequent spasms of violence have occurred, the latest earlier this month when about 10 projectiles were fired at Israel, which accused Abu el-Atta of being behind them.
Heller reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem, Zeina Karam in Beirut and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed to this report.