Israeli missile strikes on Gaza and rocket fire from the territory continued late Tuesday evening after the assassination of an Islamic Jihad leader earlier in the day set off the most serious military confrontation in months.
Ten Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes during the day, according to Gaza’s health ministry. Meanwhile, Israel closed the besieged territory’s crossing points and reduced the fishing zone to six nautical miles off of Gaza’s coast.
The spokesperson for Islamic Jihad’s military wing vowed late Tuesday that the “coming hours will mark a victory for the Palestinian people. Israel began this campaign, but it will be notified when it ends.”
Baha Abu al-Ata, 42, described by Israeli media as the northern military commander of Islamic Jihad in Gaza, was killed in an airstrike on his home in the Shujaiyeh neighborhood of Gaza City.
His wife, Asma Abu al-Ata, 38, was also killed in the Israeli attack. Seven other people, including four children, were injured and nearby houses and a school were damaged.
Meanwhile, in the Syrian capital, the home of Akram al-Ajouri, the head of Islamic Jihad’s military wing, was targeted in an airstrike. Syria blamed Israel for the attack.
Two people were reported killed in the strike, including one of al-Ajouri’s sons.
Palestinian fighters in Gaza responded to the attacks with rocket fire that reached as far as Tel Aviv. Ziad al-Nakhala, Islamic Jihad’s secretary-general, stated that “we are going to war” and that Israel’s prime minister “crossed all the red lines” by assassinating Abu al-Ata.
A toy factory in Sderot, a town in southern Israel, was among the sites hit by rockets fired from Gaza, and security camera footage showed a rocket striking a highway, nearly hitting motorists:
No serious Israeli casualties were reported on Tuesday.
On Tuesday morning, a missile hit the offices Palestinian Independent Commission for Human Rights in Gaza City, lightly injuring one of its staff members.
Amnesty International condemned the attack, stating that “strikes targeting civilian buildings [are] a violation of international law.”
The Israeli daily Haaretz later reported that the office building in Gaza City was struck by a rocket fired from Gaza that fell short, rather than an Israeli missile.
Israel claimed it fired missiles at groups launching rockets into Israel and Islamic Jihad reportedly confirmed the death of one of its fighters. The Israeli military also said that it targeted underground weapons manufacturing and storage facilities as well as training camps belonging to Islamic Jihad.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, stated in a televised address that the assassination of Abu al-Ata had been approved 10 days ago.
“This terrorist fired hundreds of rockets and planned more attacks,” Netanyahu said. “He was a ticking time bomb.”
“We are not interested in escalation but will respond when necessary,” Netanyahu added.
Aviv Kohavi, the Israeli military’s chief of staff, claimed that Abu al-Ata “acted in every way to sabotage attempts for calm with Hamas.”
“We are preparing for escalation from the ground, air and sea,” Kohavi added.
Commentators in Israel have cast suspicion on the timing and motives for the assassination of Abu al-Ata.
Writing for the Israeli daily Haaretz, Chemi Shalev suggested that Netanyahu aimed to sabotage the chances that the Joint List, a parliamentary faction made up predominantly of Palestinian citizens of Israel, would strike a deal to support a government headed by Benny Gantz.
Gantz, the leader of the Blue and White alliance, is currently attempting to form a government after Netanyahu failed to do so in the wake of Israel’s inconclusive September election. While coalition talks continue, Netanyahu remains the head of Israel’s caretaker government.
Multiple Hebrew-language outlets reported on Tuesday that Netanyahu sought Abu al-Ata’s assassination after rockets fired from Gaza forced him to leave the stage during a rally a week before elections were held in September.
“Netanyahu was furious and immediately pressured senior security officials to approve Abu al-Ata’s assassination,” according to The Times of Israel, but the operation was postponed.
Ismail Haniyeh, the head of Hamas’ political wing, accused Israel of attempting to undermine “the path to restoring our national unity” by assassinating Abu al-Ata. Last month, Hamas indicated that it was ready to hold elections, which have not been held since the resistance group’s surprise legislative victory in 2006.
Meanwhile, Naftali Bennett, an anti-Arab firebrand, formally assumed the role of Israeli defense minister on Tuesday. Netanyahu had held the ministry portfolio as negotiations to form the next Israeli government are ongoing.
Bennett has previously bragged about his blood-soaked past. “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life – and there is no problem with that,” Bennett told a cabinet meeting in 2013.
The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee stated that “Global civil society must act to hold Israel accountable where governments have failed.”
Amnesty International described the developments across the Gaza-Israel boundary as “deeply worrying,” adding that “the ensuing escalation in violence between Israel and Palestinian armed groups raises fears of a rise in civilian bloodshed.”
The rights group said “Israel has a history of carrying out serious violations of international humanitarian law in Gaza, including war crimes, with impunity and displaying a shocking disregard for Palestinian lives.”
Israel’s killing of Abu al-Ata on Tuesday echoes the assassination of Hamas military commander Ahmed al-Jabari in Gaza seven years ago this month.
By killing al-Jabari, Israel broke a ceasefire with armed groups in Gaza. It precipitated several days of fierce fighting and a ground invasion that left 170 Palestinians dead, more than 100 of them civilians.
Ten members of the al-Dalu family and two of their neighbors were killed in a single Israeli strike on a residential building in Gaza City during that offensive.
Egypt and the UN are reportedly attempting to calm the current situation and avoid a full-scale confrontation.
This story has been updated since initial publication to include new developments.