Dozens of rockets fired from Gaza after Israel assassinates Palestinian Islamic Jihad senior commander

The home of Palestinian Islamic Jihad senior commander Baha Abu al-Ata was hit by an Israeli air strike in Gaza City on Nov. 12, 2019, killing al-Ata and his wife in what the Israel Defense Forces called a “surgical strike.” (Hassan Jedi/Flash90)

Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Dozens of rockets were fired on southern and central Israel after the Israel Defense Forces killed a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza.

The rockets began targeting Israeli civilians on Tuesday at about 5 a.m., an hour after what the Israel Defense Forces called a “surgical strike” on senior Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu Al Ata.

The IDF said in a statement that Abu al-Ata was a “ticking time bomb” with plans to carry out rocket attacks and other terrorist activities against Israel “in the coming days,” and also was directly responsible for several cases of rocket fire from Gaza on southern Israel over the past six months.

The statement said that the IDF attacked only the room in the building in which Abu al-Ata was sleeping, which caused “incidental damage.” Abu-al-Ata’s wife was reported to also have been killed in the attack.

“We had an opportunity and we took advantage of it,” IDF Spokesman, Brig.-Gen. Hedi Silberman said in the statement. He said the IDF was not adopting a renewed policy of “targeted killings.”

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Code Red rocket alerts sounded in Israeli communities in southern Israel and in central Israel, including Tel Aviv, Holon, Bat Yam and Modiin. As of 1 p.m., about 150 rockets had been fired on Israel.

The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted at least 60 of the rockets.  Several homes sustained direct hits or damage from the rockets as did a factory and a highway. No one was reported injured in the attacks.

Schools from communities on the border with Gaza in the south all the way to Tel Aviv in the country’s center were ordered closed on Tuesday, leaving more than 1 million school children at home. Businesses also were ordered closed on Tuesday morning, though the ban on workers coming to their jobs in Tel Aviv was lifted as long as there the business had a bomb shelter nearby.

The Israel Defense Forces waited several hours before carrying out retaliatory attacks on Gaza, though it did strike at least one rocket launcher in northern Gaza on Tuesday morning. One Palestinian man was reported killed in that strike.  The retaliatory attacks were aimed at Palestinian Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, the IDF said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised address to the nation that the strike on Abu al-Ata was approved by Israel’s Security Cabinet 10 days ago, noting that he was planning more and imminent rocket attacks on Israel. The IDF was told to strike when it found an opportunity, he said.

Netanyahu informed Blue and White party head Benny Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff who is working to form a coalition government, of the plans to assassinate Abu al-Ata ahead of the strike.

Gantz offered his support for the assassination. “The fight against terror is ongoing and requires moments in which difficult decisions must be made.  The political echelon and the IDF made the right decision last night for all Israeli citizens and the residents of the South,” he said in a statement. “Blue and White will support all appropriate decisions made for the security of the State and will put the security of all of its residents above politics. Every terrorist who threatens our security should know that he will end up dead.”

A meeting scheduled for Tuesday between Gantz and Avigdor Liberman, head of the Yisrael Beiteinu Party, on the effort to form a government was postponed due to the day’s events.

The head of the Joint List of Arab parties, Ayman Odeh, in a tweet accused Netanyahu of ordering the strike to improve his political prospects, calling it a “scorched earth” action “in a desperate attempt to remain in office.”

Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin offered his support to the Israeli military, saying in a statement that “I know that they and the Israeli government that approved the operation, have Israel’s security, and only that, in their minds.”

Rivlin added: “This is no time for political squabbles, and those who do so bring no credit to themselves. It is the time to stop such statements immediately.”

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi said the Israeli military was planning for an escalation in violence from Gaza in the wake of killing of Abu al-Ata.

The Islamic Jihad military wing, the Al-Quds Brigade, said in a statement that its response to the assassination “will have no limits and will be equal to the size of the crime that the criminal enemy perpetrated.”

The Hamas terror organization which controls Gaza said it would not let the attack on Abu al-Ata pass without a “punishment.”

“We in Hamas affirm that the Zionist enemy will bear responsibility for all the consequences and ramifications of this escalation and dangerous attack,” Hamas said in a statement.

The European Union in a statement condemned the rocket attacks on Israeli civilians. “The firing of rockets on civilian populations is totally unacceptable and must immediately stop. A rapid and complete de-escalation is now necessary to safeguard the lives and security of Palestinian and Israeli civilians,” the statement said.