By Marcy Oster
JERUSALEM (JTA) — Dozens of rockets were fired on southern and central Israel after the Israeli army killed a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza.
The rockets began targeting Israeli civilians at about 5 a.m. Tuesday, an hour after what the Israel Defense Forces called a “surgical strike” on Baha Abu al-Ata. In a statement, the IDF said 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 terrorist leader’s wife also was reported to have been killed in the attack on the room in which Abu al-Ata was sleeping.
“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.”
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 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 their business had a bomb shelter nearby.
Several hours after the rockets, the IDF carried out retaliatory attacks on Gaza, though it did hit 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 Security Cabinet approved the strike on Abu al-Ata 10 days ago, saying the Palestinian terrorist leader was planning more and imminent rocket attacks on Israel. He said the IDF was told to strike when it found an opportunity.
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,” he said. ” The political echelon and the IDF made the right decision last night for all Israeli citizens and the residents of the South. 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, in 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.”
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,” the EU said. “A rapid and complete de-escalation is now necessary to safeguard the lives and security of Palestinian and Israeli civilians.”