Rocket fire after Israel kills Palestinian militant commander in Gaza strike

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories (AFP) – Israel’s military killed a commander of Palestinian militant group in a strike on his home in the Gaza Strip early yesterday, prompting retaliatory rocket fire and fears of a severe escalation in violence.

Separately in Damascus, Syrian state media reported that an Israeli strike hit the home of another militant, killing his son and another person. Israel did not immediately comment on that strike.

The group’s armed wing announced the death of the commander in Gaza City after Israel confirmed it had targetted Baha Abu Al-Ata, 42, in a strike. The group said Ata’s wife was also killed.

Israel blamed Ata for recent rocket fire into its territory and said he was preparing further attacks.

The strike led to “substantial” rocket fire from the Gaza Strip towards Israel and air raid sirens rang out in parts of the country, Israel’s military said, but it was unclear if it resulted in casualties or damage.

The group said it was targetting Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other cities with rocket fire.

An Israeli missile is launched from the Iron Dome defence missile system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod. PHOTO: AFP

“We are preparing for a number of days of fighting,” Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus said.

Schools were closed in both the Gaza Strip and in parts of Israel, including in commercial capital Tel Aviv.

The Israeli army ordered “non-essential” workers in Tel Aviv and central Israel to stay at home like those in the Gaza border region and banned public gatherings.

“A building in the Gaza Strip, in which the Palestinian group senior leader Baha Abu Al-Ata stayed in, was attacked,” Israel’s military said in a statement, calling it a joint operation between the army and Israel’s Shin Bet domestic security service.

Damage from a blast could be seen at Ata’s home in the Shejayia district in the east of Gaza City. Mosque loudspeakers were also announcing his death.

The group said it was on “maximum alert,” while Hamas, the extremist movement that rules the Palestinian enclave, threatened revenge.

Israel said Ata was behind rocket fire towards a music festival in the Israeli city of Sderot in August as well as further rocket attacks at the start of November.

It has also accused him of being behind sniper fire and drone launchings.

Ata “is responsible for most of the terror attacks in the last year from the Gaza Strip,” the army said, describing him as a “ticking bomb”.

It alleged he was “promoting preparations to commit immediate terror attacks in various ways towards Israeli civilians and (Israeli) troops during the recent few days”.

In the separate strike, the group confirmed one of its officials, Akram Ajouri, was targetted in Damascus.

Syrian state news agency SANA said the strike targetted Ajouri’s home “killing his son Muadh and another person.”

The strikes raised the possibility of a severe escalation between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza.

Three wars have been fought between them since 2008, and Gaza has been under a strict Israeli blockade for more than a decade. The group is the second most-powerful militant group in the Gaza Strip behind Hamas, to which it is allied.

Israel’s military said it had “deployed troops and is prepared for a wide range of offensive and defensive scenarios.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office confirmed the strike targetting Ata in a statement.

The flare-up comes at a sensitive time politically for Israel.

A September 17 general election ended in a deadlock and a new government is yet to be formed. It was the second election since April, when polls also ended inconclusively.