Israel assassinated a senior Islamic Jihad militant overnight Tuesday, the military said, after targeting a building in Gaza. Palestinian factions in Gaza vowed retaliation, with Islamic Jihad saying Israel "declared war,' as dozens of rockets were launched from Gaza at Israel's south and central cities.
The senior Palestinian militant who was targeted was Baha Abu al-Ata, the commander of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the northern Gaza Strip.
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Just over an hour after the strike, multiple rocket alerts sounded in southern Israel, including in Ashdod, Ashkelon, and in central Israeli cities such as Holon, Rishon Letzion and Tel Aviv.
Amid the escalation, approximately one million students remained home Tuesday after Israel announced that schools in the vacinity of the Gaza border and in the center of the country will be closed.
Bomb shelters were opened in central Israel and as far as Modi'in, near Jerusalem.
Overnight Tuesday, a joint statement by the Israel Defense Forces and the Shin Bet security service announced that an airstrike targeted al-Ata at around 4:30 A.M.
"Al-Ata was responsible for most attacks from the Gaza strip over the last year, including the days of battle close to Memorial Day [for Israel's fallen soldiers], the shooting on the Sderot festival on August 25, 2019, and the last rocket barrage against Sderot on Friday, November 1, 2019," the statement said, calling al-Ata "a ticking bomb."
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that al-Ata "was behind multiple attacks and rocket launches against Israel in recent months and intended to carry new immediate attacks," noting that the strike was recommended by the IDF chief of staff and the Shin Bet and was approved by the inner security cabinet.
Following the assassination, Islamic Jihad vowed to respond. "We promise to continue the fight, and our response will undoubtedly come to shake the foundations of the Zionist entity," the group said. Hamas, the ruling group in Gaza, said Israel bears the responsibility for the consequences of the assassination. "This crime committed by Israel will not pass silently, and will be met with retaliation by the resistance forces," it said.
Benny Gantz, leader of centrist alliance Kahol Lavan, who is currently tasked with forming the next government, voiced his support of the assassination.
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"The political leadership and the IDF made the right decision tonight for the safety of the citizens of Israel and the people of the South," the former chief of staff and Netanyahu's political rival said on Twitter. "Kahol Lavan will back up any activity that is right for Israel's security and put the safety of the people above politics."
The Israeli army announced a series of road closures and other restrictions in the south of the country in anticipation for a possible flare-up.
Al-Ata, a leading figure in Islamic Jihad, has become a dominant figure in the Strip, recently associated with the rise and fall of tensions with Israel.
Ata headed the military council of the Al-Quds Brigade, which is the military arm of the Islamic Jihad. He commanded the organization's operations in northern Gaza, but also wielded great influence on the southern front.
Al-Ata had several hundred fighters under his command and an arsenal of dozens of rockets at his disposal that could be fired at Israel, sources in Gaza told Haaretz ahead of his killing.
During the Gaza conflict in 2012, Israel attempted to assassinate al-Ata together with other leaders. An Israeli airstrike hit a building he was in, but he survived.
In 2014, during the Gaza operation dubbed Operation Protective Edge, al-Ata's house was bombed, but the commander wasn't home at the time and the Islamic Jihad interpreted the strike as a mere warning.