Israel assassinated a senior leader of an Iran-backed militant group in the Gaza Strip in an early morning air strike on Tuesday, prompting dozens of retaliatory rockets from the blockaded coastal enclave.
The Israeli military said it had killed Baha Abu Al-Ata of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, one of several militant groups operating in the blockaded territory. It said Al-Ata was a “ticking time bomb” responsible for several rocket attacks into southern Israel in the past few months.
The air strike at about 4am targeted his home and also killed a woman living there, the Gaza Health Ministry said. Sirens sounded across southern Israel soon after the raid, sending residents to air raid shelters while some roads bordering the Gaza Strip were closed.
Schools and offices were shut as far north as Tel Aviv, where air raid sirens rang out and schoolchildren were rushed home. Israel’s military said it was preparing for several days of war.
Assassinations of senior leaders in the Gaza Strip are rare and considered a serious escalation. Jonathan Conricus, an Israel Defense Forces spokesman, said the death of Al-Ata should not be seen as a return to a “strategy of targeted killings”.
The strike that killed Al-Ata comes after a period of relative calm and threatens a prolonged retaliation from Islamic Jihad. It has built up an arsenal of thousands of rockets, some of which are considered accurate enough to target Israeli cities.
“Our inevitable retaliation will rock the Zionist entity,” Palestinian Islamic Jihad said in a statement.
Mr Conricus said the decision to kill al-Ata was made after Israeli intelligence intercepted a plot that involved him and the use of snipers, improvised explosive devices and rockets against Israeli soldiers.
Islamic Jihad is a rival of Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, which has been involved in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Egyptian intermediaries to broker a ceasefire with Israel.
But Hamas and Islamic Jihad often co-operate, especially during hostilities with Israel, which have resulted in three full-blown wars since 2007.
Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, recently appointed Naftali Bennett, an ex-special forces officer, as defence minister as he tries to keep his rightwing bloc united during drawn-out coalition negotiations. Israel’s security cabinet will meet on Tuesday morning.
Mr Bennett, who represents settlers as the leader of the New Right party, had called for assassinations of senior Gaza leaders during protests and rocket attacks last year. It is not known if his recent elevation played a role in the timing of the assassination, but Mr Conricus said the final decision had been taken by Mr Netanyahu alone.
Israel has killed hundreds of protesters, most of them unarmed, at the border with the Gaza Strip since March last year. It has also shot thousands in the leg, as it sought to quell Hamas-organised demonstrations that have drawn tens of thousands of Palestinians.
Militants in the Gaza strip have fired hundreds of rockets into Israel during the same period, targeting civilians.
The protesters have demanded an easing of the years-long blockade of the Gaza Strip, which Israel has maintained is necessary to contain Hamas. While it has substantially weakened Hamas, the siege-like conditions have also devastated the Gaza Strip’s economy, and trapped some 2m Palestinians into a tiny strip of land.