Palestinians check the damage of a house targeted by Israeli missile strikes in Gaza City. Khalil Hamra/AP/Press Association Images

Israel kills top Palestinian Islamic Jihad commander in Gaza attack

Israel was attacked with rockets following the strike on the Palestinian militants.

A PAIR OF Israeli air strikes have targeted two senior commanders from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, killing one in Gaza but missing another in Syria.

The strikes escalated Israel’s confrontation with Iran across the region and threatened to unleash another 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 barrage of Gaza-fired rockets that reached as far as the Tel Aviv heartland as the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad vowed further revenge.

The military said Abu el-Atta was the mastermind of recent attacks against Israel and the militant group’s senior commander in Gaza.

Three other Palestinian militants were killed in additional Israeli strikes.

Syrian officials said an Israeli air strike in the capital Damascus targeted another Islamic Jihad commander, Akram al-Ajouri, who was not harmed.

The state-run news agency said Israeli planes fired three missiles at al-Ajouri’s home, killing his son and granddaughter. The Israeli military had no comment.

israel-palestinians Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference following the strike. Oded Balilty / AP/Press Association Images Oded Balilty / AP/Press Association Images / AP/Press Association Images

The sudden surge in violence looked to spark Israel’s increasingly open conflict with Iran and its proxies in the region. Iran supplies Islamic Jihad with training, expertise and money, though most of the group’s weapons in Gaza are believed to be locally produced.

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has issued a series of warnings recently about alleged Iranian aggression throughout the Middle East.

He has also been criticised by residents along the southern border and political rivals for a weak response to recent militant attacks. His Security Cabinet held a lengthy emergency meeting to discuss further action.

Afterwards, speaking alongside military chief Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, Netanyahu said Israel had no interest in escalation but would do everything necessary to defend itself against people like Abu el-Atta, whom he described as an “arch terrorist” and “the main generator of terrorism from the Gaza Strip”.

“He was in the midst of plotting additional attacks these very days. He was a ticking bomb,” he added.

The air strikes come at a difficult time politically for Israel, as Netanyahu leads a caretaker government after two inconclusive elections. His chief challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, is trying to build a coalition government of his own.

Gantz said he had been briefed on the air strike in advance, calling it “the right decision”, and Netanyahu updated his rival on developments later on Tuesday, according to the prime minister’s office.

A successful military operation could bolster Netanyahu as he seeks to hold on to power — especially if he is indicted on corruption charges.

Israel’s attorney general is expected to make a decision in coming weeks, and an indictment would increase pressure on him 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 air strike killed Abu el-Atta as he slept at home.

Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters Abu el-Atta was responsible for several recent attacks on southern Israel and was actively planning new ones. “We essentially over the last week have been waiting for the opportune moment to conduct this surgical strike,” he said.

He said the air strike destroyed only the floor of the building in the Shejaeya neighbourhood, in eastern Gaza City, to minimise collateral damage.

Abu el-Atta’s relatives and Islamic Jihad said Abu el-Atta’s wife was killed and the two wounded were their children.

The militant group said 42-year-old Abu el-Atta was undergoing “a heroic act” when he was assassinated.

His father said the Islamic Jihad commander had been in hiding in recent weeks fearing he would be targeted.

Minutes after the group confirmed the death, barrages of rockets were fired towards Israel. Air raid sirens continued to go off throughout the day as far as Tel Aviv.

In one instance, a rocket landed on a highway, yards from a passing vehicle. In another, a rocket pierced the roof of a residential home.

The military said more than 50 rockets were fired in a few hours, with 20 intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system. The Mada rescue service said two people were treated for shrapnel injuries.

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