Israel assassinated a senior commander of the Islamic Jihad group in the Gaza Strip on Tuesday, touching off a barrage of Palestinian rocket fire at Israeli communities and Israeli airstrikes that shattered a truce that’s largely held for months.
Islamic Jihad accused Israel of also targeting another of its top commanders, Akram al-Ajouri, in the Syrian capital, Damascus. In a statement, it said two other people, including al-Ajouri’s son, were killed and warned that “Israel has crossed all the red lines.” Israel had no comment on this attack.
The predawn missile strike on a building in Gaza City killed Bahaa Abu al-Ata, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised briefing. Military chief Lieutenant-General Aviv Kochavi called the militant commander the main obstacle to maintaining the unofficial ceasefire with Gaza’s Hamas rulers.
“We will attack whoever attacks us,” said Netanyahu. “Israel is not interested in escalation,” he added, “but we will do whatever it takes to protect ourselves. But that can take time. We have to let the army do its job.”
The violence rattled an internationally brokered truce that has for the most part kept confrontations at bay since the last major round of fighting in May. It comes at a time of political turmoil in Israel, which is still struggling to form a government after two back-to-back elections.
Islamic Jihad spokesman Mos’ab al-Briem called the assassination “a declaration of war on our Palestinian people” and vowed retaliation. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in a statement, “condemned the continuous Israeli escalation against our people in the Gaza Strip.”
Three Gazans were killed in the attacks — al-Ata and his wife, and one of the motorcyclists. There were no serious casualties in Israel, where a missile-defense system intercepted at least 20 rockets headed for built-up areas, the military said.