Within hours of the Israeli strike in Gaza, Palestinian militant groups began firing an intense barrage of rockets into southern Israel, sending families running to bomb shelters as warning sirens wailed.
There were no immediate reports of casualties but the Israeli military ordered the closure of all schools and non-essential businesses in southern and central Israel, including in Tel Aviv, the country’s financial capital.
It was the first time schools and shops have been shut in Tel Aviv since the 2014 Gaza War.
A spokesman for IDF said Israel was “prepared for several days of battle” and would use the Iron Dome missile defence system to intercept rockets and strike back in Gaza if the rocket fire continued.
At least 50 rockets had been fired by 9am, the IDF said, and 20 of them were intercepted by Iron Dome.
The assassination of al-Ata was recommended by Israel’s military and intelligence chiefs and approved by Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, the Israeli government said.
“He was responsible for many terrorist attacks and the firing of rockets at the State of Israel in recent months and had intended to carry out imminent attacks,” the prime minister’s office said.
The outbreak of fighting comes at a sensitive political moment in Israel as the country struggles to form a government following a September election that saw Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party essentially tied with Blue and White, a centrist coalition led by former general Benny Gantz.
Mr Netanyahu tried and failed to form a majority coalition and Mr Gantz has one week left to form a government of his own.
Mr Gantz said his political rival “made the right decision” to approve the strike in Gaza. “Every terrorist who threatens our security should know that he will end up dead,” Mr Gantz said.
However, some Arab-Israeli politicians accused Mr Netanyahu of seeking to benefit politically from the escalation of violence.
“A cynical man who lost two consecutive elections will leave only scorched earth in a desperate attempt to remain in office,” said Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, the main party representing Israel’s Palestinian minority.
Israel assassinated a senior Islamic Jihad commander inside the Gaza Strip early on Tuesday, prompting a barrage of retaliatory rockets from Palestinian militant groups and leaving both sides bracing for serious escalation.
Israeli warplanes killed Baha Abu al-Ata with an airstrike in Shejaiyah, near Gaza City. The Israeli military said al-Ata was responsible for several recent rocket strikes and was planning “to commit immediate terror attacks”.
Islamic Jihad acknowledged al-Ata’s death and said his wife had also been killed. The group said that one of its senior members had been also targeted in a suspected Israeli airstrike in Damascus, where the Palestinian group has its headquarters. The Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) refused to say if it was behind the strike in Syria.
“We are going to war,” said Ziad al-Nakhala, the secretary general of Islamic Jihad. “Netanyahu has crossed all the red lines in the assassination of al-Quds Brigades commander Baha Abu al-Ata. We we will respond forcefully.”