Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Israelis to brace for prolonged fighting as Palestinian factions in Gaza fired barrages of rockets in retaliation for Israel's assassination of a senior Islamic Jihad commander.
The most serious escalation in six months began early Tuesday when Israeli warplanes targeted Baha Abu al-Ata, the military commander of the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad group in Gaza. The 42-year-old militant and his wife were both killed in the strike in Gaza City.
Mr Netanyahu called al-Ata “a ticking bomb” who was planning attacks against Israel “in the immediate short term”. “This arch-terrorist was the main instigator of terrorism from the Gaza Strip,” the prime minister said.
Soon after the raid in Gaza, a suspected Israeli airstrike targeted another senior Islamic Jihad leader at his home in Damascus, where the group is headquartered. The official was not home but his son and granddaughter were killed, according to Syrian state media. Israel’s military refused to say if it was behind the strike.
Islamic Jihad vowed it would go to war to avenge the attacks on its leaders and Palestinian factions quickly began filling the skies above southern Israel with rockets. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) said more than 150 rockets were fired over the course of Tuesday.
Appearing alongside Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs, Mr Netanyahu warned there may not be a quick end to the fighting. “Israel is not interested in escalation, but will do everything necessary to defend ourselves,” he said. “This could take time. Patience and composure are required. The IDF must be allowed to do its work.”
The IDF ordered all schools and non-essential businesses to shut in southern Israel, including in the financial capital of Tel Aviv, for the first time since the 2014 Gaza War. Israeli families fled to bomb shelters as warning sirens wailed. Several dozen people were treated for shock or minor injuries but no fatalities were reported.
In Gaza City, Palestinian families huddled in their homes as Israeli warplanes raced overhead and carried out waves of strikes against Islamic Jihad targets. Five people were killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas health ministry, including al-Ata, his wife, and two Islamic Jihad fighters.
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.
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.
Israel and Hamas usually both look to Egypt to mediate ceasefires during rounds of fighting in Gaza. Egyptian officials reportedly opened communications channels but there was no immediate sign of a deal.
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 but the two men set aside political differences amid the violence in the south.
Mr Gantz was informed about the planned strike ahead of time and praised it as “the right decision”. He met Mr Netanyahu Tuesday for a briefing on the security situation.
Political analysts suggested that the fighting could make it easier for Mr Gantz and Mr Netanyahu to form a national unity government, which both sides insist they want but cannot agree on the terms.
Several Left-wing and Arab-Israeli politicians suggested Mr Netanyahu had timed the strike to create a security crisis for his own political benefit. The prime minister said the operation to kill al-Ata was taken ten days ago by the security cabinet and the final timing was decided by senior military and intelligence officials.
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.