Mourners chant slogans as they carry the body of Palestinian Islamic Jihad senior leader Baha Abu al-Ata during his funeral in Gaza City on Tuesday. Israel's military killed the commander in a targeted strike on his home in the Gaza Strip, prompting retaliatory rocket fire and fears of a severe escalation in violence. Photo by Ismael Mohamad/UPI | License Photo
Nov. 12 (UPI) -- Israeli security forces said Tuesday they killed a senior leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad in a predawn attack on the Gaza Strip, inciting the militant group to fire about 50 rockets in retaliation.
The Israeli Defense Forces said it killed Baha Abu al-Ata of the Islamic Jihad in a "precision strike" in Shejaiyah, Gaza. The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed the senior commander died in the attack.
"Senior Islamic Jihad commander Baha Abu al-Ata was targeted overnight in Gaza," the office said in a statement. "He was responsible for many terrorist attacks and the firing of rockets at Israel in recent months and had intended to carry out imminent attacks."
Shin Bet security agency chief Nadav Agaman said the operation "succeeded as a result of strained work by many people."
"The mission tonight was at the right time and at the right place," he added.
Rocket alerts blared across southern and central Israel early Tuesday as the Islamic Jihad "indiscriminately" fired rockets at Israeli towns near Gaza in retaliation, the IDF said via Twitter.
Islamic Jihad said in a statement, "our response to this crime will have no limits," and called the attack "a declaration of war against the Palestinian people."
The IDF said its Iron Dome aerial defense system intercepted about 20 rockets and the military released footage of a rocket hitting an Israeli highway and nearly two cars. Schools and businesses closed across southern Israel and shelters opened.
"The barrage of rockets being fired by Islamic Jihad in Gaza at Israeli civilians after our surgical strike on their commander shows exactly why he was targeted in the first place," the IDF tweeted.
The IDF launched a counter strike later Tuesday with jets to hit Islamic Jihad targets in Gaza, including a rocket launching unit. The militant group said Abu al-Ata and his wife were killed in the "coward assassination while undergoing a "heroic act."
"These terrorist crimes are aggression and a declaration of war against the Palestinian people, and the enemy bears full responsibility for them," the group said.
The attack was conducted by the IDF and Shin Bet around 4:30 a.m., the agencies said in a joint statement. They blamed Abu al-Ata for a slew of attacks on Israel, calling him "a ticking bomb."
Netanyahu's office said the attack was carried out at the recommendation of the IDF and was approved by himself and the defense minister.
Benny Gantz, the leader of Israel's Blue and White Party who's trying to form a new coalition government after Netanyahu failed to do so in October, said he approved of the attack.
"The political echelon and the IDF made the right decision tonight for the security of Israeli citizens and residents of the south," Gantz said in a statement. "Blue and White will back up any proper activity for Israel's security and put the resident's security above politics."
Syrian state media said Israel launched a separate attack on Islamic Jihad leader Akram Al-Ajouri in Damascus. The leader survived but one of his sons was killed, officials said.