Israeli air strikes on Tuesday killed a prominent commander of Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian militant group in the Gaza Strip, potentially threatening a massive escalation of Israel's cross-border violence with Iranian-backed Palestinians.
Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife died overnight in an air raid on a house in Shajaiyah, Gaza City, the Israeli Prime Minister's office said. Israeli Defense Forces said Abu el-Atta was the main commander of the militant group in Gaza and orchestrated several recent attacks on Israel. Islamic Jihad promised revenge.
Separately, in Syria, officials said on Tuesday that an Israeli air strike in the capital, Damascus, hit another Islamic Jihad commander, Akram al-Ajouri.
Al-Ajouri was not injured, but the confrontation risks another round of hostilities with Iranian-backed militants operating in Syria. Syria's state news agency said Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at al-Ajouri's house, killing his son and granddaughter.
The Israeli military made no comment.
Islamic Jihad receives funding, weapons and guidance from Iran. It often conducts attacks independently of Hamas, the largest militant group that controls Gaza.
Iranian officials rarely comment on the activities of their representatives in the region.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads an interim government after two inconclusive elections, was criticized by residents of Israel's southern border with Gaza and political rivals for a lukewarm response to recent militant attacks.
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After an emergency Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said el-Atta "was planning additional attacks today. … He was a bomb."
Benny Gantz, Netanyahu's main election challenger and former military chief, said the air strike in Gaza City was "the right decision."
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El-Atta's two sons were injured in the air strike.
Islamic Jihad said el-Atta, 42, was undergoing "a heroic act" when he was killed.
In all, four Palestinians were killed in the fighting on Tuesday.
The Israeli military said that minutes after the Iranian-backed Palestinian group confirmed the death, rocket bombings were fired at Israel. More than 50 rockets were launched in just a few hours, with 20 intercepted by Israel's defense system, the Iron Dome.
There were no Israeli casualties.
Israel later launched a second wave of air strikes against Islamic Jihad targets.
The sudden spate of violence could spark Israel's increasingly open conflict with Iran and its representatives in the region and comes as Netanyahu seeks to cling to power – especially if he is indicted on corruption charges in the coming weeks.
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Israel has closed crossing points in Gaza and reduced the permitted fishing area off the coast to 6 nautical miles. Schools were closed and people were told to stay at home in communities stretching from the Gaza border to Tel Aviv, about 80 kilometers away. Public shelters were opened and restrictions imposed on meetings.
The attacks come at a tense moment for Iranian Islamic Jihad sponsors, who are fighting under crippling US sanctions after President Donald Trump left the country. nuclear deal with Iran and world powers and reimpose economic sanctions on Iran.
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In Damascus, a military official said Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at the Syrian capital, one of them being destroyed by Syria's air defenses before hitting its target. The other two attacked al-Ajouri's house, the official said.
A second man identified as Abdullah Yousef Hassan was killed and nine civilians were injured, the unidentified official said, according to Syrian state media.
Israel often attacks Iranian interests in Syria and carried out hundreds of air strikes in the course of Syria's civil war, now in its ninth year. Tuesday's attack was a rare assassination attempt on a Palestinian militant in the Syrian capital.
Since Hamas forcibly took over Gaza in 2007 from the internationally backed Palestinian Authority, Israeli and Gaza militants have fought three wars.
The last war in 2014 lasted 50 days.
Contribution: Associated Press