Israel kills powerful Islamic Jihad commander al-Ata in targeted strike

IDF kills Baha Abu al-Ata, says he was planning ‘imminent’ attacks; rocket sirens sound in south as schools closed and army prepares for fresh round of fighting.

The Israel Defense Forces killed a senior commander of the Islamic Jihad terror group responsible for the firing dozens of rockets out of the Gaza Strip, authorities said early Tuesday, in an attack that could send the sides sliding back toward war.

Shortly after the attack, rocket sirens sounded throughout southern Israel, as the region girded for a fresh round of violence. There was no immediate word on injuries or damage.

The IDF said it carried out a strike against a building where Baha Abu al-Ata was present in the Shejaiya area of Gaza City. It said he was planning an “imminent” attack at Iran’s behest.

The Islamic Jihad said al-Ata, 42, was undergoing “a heroic act” when he was assassinated. It did not elaborate, but vowed revenge.

Gaza’s Health Ministry said a man and a woman were killed in an airstrike at a house and two other people were wounded.

Palestinians inspect the damaged house of Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu Al-Ata after an Israeli attack in Gaza city, on November 12, 2019. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Al-Ata was thought to be the powerful head of the northern Gaza branch of Islamic Jihad’s military wing, and was seen as responsible for a number of rocket attacks on the country.

In a statement, the IDF called al-Ata a “ticking time bomb,” and said he was gearing up for new attacks on Israel, including pushing forward plans to carry out sniper attacks and send cells of terrorists across the border. It also said he had plotted drone attacks and to launch of rockets with different ranges.

The assassination came as hard-liner Naftali Bennett was set to take over as defense minister later Tuesday. The army said the assassination was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been defense minister for nearly a year.

Shortly after the strike, the IDF said it was bolstering troops and was “ready for a wide range of scenarios,” as authorities girded for expected reprisal attacks.

Schools in Israeli cities and communities near the Gaza Strip were shuttered for Tuesday and the army said it was closing off access to roads that run near the Strip, as well as open areas exposed to attack from the enclave.

Pictures from Gaza shared in Palestinian media showed heavy damage to the top floors of a building following the strike.

Israeli military officials had hinted at having al-Ata on their kill list, previously leaking his name and picture to the media in what was widely seen as a warning.

The powerful commander was widely seen as a maverick who took orders directly from Iran, if at all. The army said he was responsible for a a wide range of rocket attacks on Israel, including a volley of rockets fired at the city of Sderot on November 1, and another attack on an open-air Sderot festival in August that sent thousands of people rushing for shelter as rockets exploded overhead.

Israeli air defense system Iron Dome takes out rockets fired from Gaza near Sderot, Israel, May 4, 2019. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

An Israeli military official to Kan radio said the army had been careful to avoid damage to bystanders by only targeting the room where they knew al-Ata and his wife were sleeping. The official described the operation as a one-off and not a return to Israel’s policy of targeted killings.

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 a Hamas field commander responsible for funneling money from Iran to Gaza terror groups.

This appeared to mark a return by Israel to its once-regular practice of so-called targeted killings — assassinating terrorist leaders with pinpoint strikes — something it has largely forgone in recent years. In 2012, the killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari set off a week of intense fighting.

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. On Saturday, an Israeli official said talks for the return of Israelis held captive in Gaza and the remains of soldiers, which have been linked to the ceasefire ngotiations, had stalled.

Islamic Jihad is closely allied with Iran. Shortly after the attack, Syria reported air strikes in the Mezzeh area of Damascus, in what could be a related attack.

There was no immediate word confirmation from Israel on military activity in Syria.