Israel carried out a deadly airstrike on a residence used by a leading Palestinian militant in Gaza on Tuesday morning and missed a strike on a second top target in Syria, sparking a barrage of retaliatory missile fire from the restive Palestinian enclave.
The initial Israeli strike reportedly killed Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) commander Baha Abu al-Ata and his wife as they slept. The group responded by firing more than 150 rockets at Israel, injuring several Israelis.
Separately, Syria's state-run news agency reported that Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at the home of Akram al-Ajouri, also a member of PIJ's leadership living in exile. The militant leader was not harmed, but his son and granddaughter were killed, the report said.
By the afternoon, Israel Defense Forces had carried out additional airstrikes in Gaza and the country was on emergency footing, preparing for major escalation.
The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Abu al-Ata was a senior commander responsible for one of the main sectors of the militant movement's area of operations in the northern Gaza Strip. He was reportedly planning new missions targeting Israeli soldiers on the tense Gaza border.
Mr. Netanyahu met with his senior advisers and Israel Security Agency head Nadav Argaman and said the message of the strikes was that no one should think they can get away with targeting Israel.
"Terrorists think they can hit civilians and hide behind civilians," Mr. Netanyahu said. "We showed that we can hit the terrorists with minimal damage to civilians."
The Associated Press reported that Mr. Netanyahu's government had approved the strikes 10 days earlier and waited for "optimal conditions" to hit Abu al-Ata while minimizing civilian casualties. Mr. Netanyahu said Israel was not interested in escalation but warned: "This could take time."
Israeli officials say the Iranian-backed PIJ was responsible for rocket fire early this month and also last year. Israel Defense Forces blamed al-Ata for rocket fire that targeted areas near the Gaza Strip, for developing "killer drones" and for carrying out sniper attacks.
Israel saw al-Ata as a "ticking bomb" and had long argued that he had to be neutralized, officials said.
PIJ responded to the attack by firing 150 rockets into Israel. Israel's Iron Dome defense system intercepted most of them.
Israel has carried out precision strikes against other Hamas figures, including Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a leader of the militant group killed in 2004. Israel has attempted to kill Hamas commander Mohammed Deif several times.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.