The Israel Defense Forces on Tuesday afternoon launched a campaign of retaliatory airstrikes against the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in the Gaza Strip following approximately six hours of unanswered rocket attacks on central and southern Israel from the enclave.
The military said its airstrikes targeted Palestinian Islamic Jihad underground facilities and training camps. The IDF said these underground facilities were used “for storage and manufacturing of weapons.”
These sites are seen as critical facilities for the terror group, which PIJ has invested large sums of money to construct.
IDF aircraft also bombed a group of Islamic Jihad operatives in the northern Gaza Strip as they prepared to fire rockets at Israel around 1 p.m., the military said.
One of the terrorists was killed and three others were wounded in the strike, the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said.
In the predawn hours of Tuesday morning, Israeli Air Force jets fired precision ammunition at a building in the Shejaiya area of Gaza City where PIJ senior commander Baha Abu al-Ata was located, assassinating him and killing his wife, in a joint operation by the IDF and Shin Bet security service.
According to the IDF, Abu al-Ata was the true “senior commander” of the Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip, having ordered the group to carry out most of the significant rocket and border attacks from the Palestinian enclave in recent months and planning to carry out more.
“[Abu al-Ata] acted in every way to sabotage attempts for calm with Hamas, and… was responsible for the majority of attacks that took place over past year,” IDF chief Aviv Kohavi said in a press conference on Tuesday afternoon.
Shortly after Abu al-Ata’s assassination, the PIJ began launching dozens of both short- and long-range rockets, firing the majority of them at the Israeli communities around Gaza and a smaller number at major cities in central Israel throughout the morning.
One man was lightly injured by a rocket attack that struck a highway near the town of Gan Yavne, and an 8-year-old girl was in serious condition after she collapsed suddenly while hiding in a bomb shelter during a rocket attack on the city of Holon. It was not immediately clear if her injury was caused by the rocket attack. In addition, several people were hospitalized with light injuries that occurred as they ran to bomb shelters.
Israel largely refrained from retaliating for the first six hours of the rocket attacks, during which an estimated 150 projectiles were fired from Gaza, with the exception of one airstrike on Tuesday morning against two PIJ members whom the IDF said were preparing to launch projectiles at Israel. At least one of them was killed and the other was injured in the strike, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry.
Approximately 60 incoming rockets were shot down by the Iron Dome missile defense system, according to unofficial tallies that were not immediately confirmed by the IDF.
Shortly after noon, following a meeting of the security cabinet, the IDF announced it was launching retaliatory strikes against Islamic Jihad targets in the Strip.
Notably, the Israeli military did not say it would be conducting strikes against the Hamas terror group, the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip. In general, the IDF’s modus operandi has been to attack Hamas targets in response to any violence emanating from the Strip, as it considers the terror group to be the sovereign of the enclave.
IDF spokesperson Jonathan Conricus said Israel sent messages to Hamas, through unidentified third parties, urging the terror group to not take part in this round of fighting and that in return the IDF would not carry out strikes against it.
“We are monitoring [Hamas’s] activities and will conduct ourselves accordingly,” Conricus said.
The military said it was preparing for several days of fighting with terror groups in the Gaza Strip.
On Tuesday morning, the IDF Home Front Command ordered all schools and non-essential businesses closed in the following areas: the Gaza periphery; the Lachish region; the western Negev; the central Negev; and the Shfela region. The IDF also forbade gatherings of more than 100 people there.
Schools were also closed in the Dan region, including Tel Aviv, and in the Yarkon region. Businesses were temporarily ordered shut there as well, but were allowed to reopen on Tuesday morning, providing there was a bomb shelter nearby, the military said. In the Dan and Yarkon regions, the IDF forbade all public gatherings of more than 300 people.
It was the first time that the IDF ordered a closure of schools and businesses in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area since the 2014 Gaza war, known in Israel as Operation Protective Edge.
Though there have been relatively few injuries caused by the rocket attacks, several projectiles have caused damage to homes and roads in southern Israel.
A rocket struck a factory in the town of Sderot, northeast of Gaza, causing a large fire that threatened to collapse the building, the local fire department said.
Another rocket hit a home in the southern town of Netivot, causing a large amount of damage, police said. One also hit the roof of a home in the Eshkol region of southern Israel while the family was taking cover in the bomb shelter. There were no injuries.
A rocket struck the Route 4 highway near the Gan Yavne Junction, lightly injuring a man and causing significant damage to the road and several cars. Police sappers were called to the scene to remove the projectile.
Several rockets also struck elsewhere in the town of Sderot, northeast of the Gaza Strip, causing light property damage; one hit the city of Ashdod, damaging a car; and one struck a street in the central Israeli city of Rishon Lezion.
A mortar shell fired from the Gaza Strip landed in an open field in the Sha’ar Hanegev region of southern Israel, sparking a fire, a regional spokesperson said.
Hospitals and other emergency services were put on high alert in light of the ongoing rocket attacks.
The Ben Gurion International Airport was not affected by the closures, though some flight paths appeared to have been changed. “Ben Gurion Airport is working as usual with no changes to the flight schedule,” a spokesman for the Israeli Airports Authority said.
The military said it had sent a number of warnings to Abu al-Ata — through unidentified mediators — to call off his operations, but they went unheeded.
“We tried to send a message to Abu al-Ata and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad that we are aware of his actions and to persuade him to stop these attacks. Obviously, these warnings were not successful,” said IDF spokesman Conricus.
He said the assassination did not signify “a return to previous policies of what has been termed in the media ‘targeted killings.’”
“We conducted the attack because there were no other choice,” he said.
The timing of the IAF strike — in the midst of heated political debate as prime minister-designate Benny Gantz works to form a coalition — drew immediate criticism from opponents of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who questioned the need to conduct a targeted assassination at this time.
Conricus said the IDF asked for permission from Netanyahu, who serves as both prime and defense minister, as well as the security cabinet to carry out the assassination operation over a week ago and was waiting for the right time to act.
“Over the last week, we have been waiting for the opportune moment to conduct the surgical strike,” he said.
The army spokesman said the military saw its chance on Tuesday morning when Abu al-Ata was relatively isolated and the risk to Gazan civilians was less.
“The missiles were fired from fighter jets with the intention of not bringing down the entire building, but just the floor where he was located,” Conricus said.
He said he was aware of the reports of additional casualties in the strike, but could not comment on the matter.
Conricus said the military did not believe that Abu al-Ata was acting on the orders of Iran, which backs the PIJ, but was “more a local terrorist who acted unchecked.”
Israeli military officials hinted at having Abu al-Ata on their kill list in recent weeks, leaking his name and picture to the media in what was widely seen as a tacit threat.
The targeted killing of a Palestinian leader in Gaza is a rare event.
In May, during the most serious flareup in recent years, when Palestinian terrorists fired more than 700 rockets into Israel, the IAF killed Hamed Hamdan al-Khodari, who it said was responsible for funneling money from Iran to Gaza terror groups.
Israel and Gaza have engaged in several sporadic rounds of violence over the last two years as the sides attempted to reach a long-term ceasefire.