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.
Though the range and frequency of attacks from Gaza decreased going into Tuesday evening, the IDF remained on alert for a possible return of intense rocket fire at southern Israel and additional attacks aimed at Tel Aviv and its suburbs, as part of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s retaliation for the assassination of one of its top leaders, Baha Abu al-Ata, earlier in the day.
Throughout Tuesday, the PIJ fired approximately 190 rockets and mortar shells at southern and central Israel, half of which landed in open fields, where they caused neither injury nor damage, according to the IDF. Dozens of the incoming projectiles were shot down by soldiers operating the Iron Dome missile defense system, representing a 90% interception rate for rockets heading toward populated areas, the army said.
The remaining 10% of projectiles struck homes, businesses and roadways, causing significant damage, but relatively few injuries.
In response, the military said its fighter jets, helicopters and other aircraft targeted Palestinian Islamic Jihad “training compounds, including one used by PIJ’s naval commando unit, the shaft of an offensive terror tunnel in the northern Gaza Strip and a tunnel digging site in the central Gaza Strip,” as well as several underground facilities used to manufacture and store weapons, observation posts and training camps in three rounds of airstrikes.
These sites — specifically the underground ones — are seen as critical facilities for PIJ, which the terror group has invested large sums of money to construct.
IDF aircraft also bombed several groups of Islamic Jihad operatives in the northern Gaza Strip as they prepared to fire rockets at Israel throughout the afternoon, the military said.
Three terrorists was killed and several others were wounded in the afternoon strikes, 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 terror chief 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 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.
In total, 12 Palestinians were killed in Israeli strikes on Tuesday, including Abu al-Ata and his wife, and 45 others were injured, the health ministry added.
The Islamic Jihad has acknowledged that all those killed, save for Abu al-Ata’s wife, were members of the terror group.
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.
After the Israeli military began retaliating, at least 40 more rockets were launched at Israeli communities, according to the IDF, bringing the day’s total to 190.
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 both schools and businesses in the Tel Aviv metropolitan area since 1990 in the First Gulf War. Over a million Israeli students did not attend classes.
Ben Gurion Airport operated as usual.
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.
Jacob Magid contributed to this report.