A pair of Israeli air strikes have targeted two senior commanders from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad, killing one in Gaza but missing another in Syria.

The death of Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife as they slept in their home in eastern Gaza set off the heaviest fighting in months between Israel and Islamic Jihad, an Iranian-backed militant group.

Gaza militants fired scores of rockets into Israel throughout the day, some reaching as far as Tel Aviv, while Israeli warplanes responded with a series of air strikes on Islamic Jihad targets.

Eight others were killed, including at least seven militants.

“Whoever thinks that it is possible to hurt our citizens and evade our long arm is mistaken,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a meeting of top security officials at Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv.

A building targeted by Israeli missile strikes in Damascus
A building targeted by Israeli missile strikes in Damascus (Sana/AP)

He described Abu el-Atta as a “ticking time bomb” and “the main instigator of terrorism” from Gaza, responsible for many rocket attacks on Israel and planning more.

He said the killing had been approved 10 days earlier, and that Israel had waited for the “optimal conditions” to hit him while minimising civilian casualties.

He said Israel was not interested in escalation but warned: “This could take time.”

Egypt, which frequently mediates between Israel and Gaza militants, was working to de-escalate tensions, according to officials in Cairo.

A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office said: “We are deeply concerned by the escalation of hostilities in Gaza.

“The UK condemns the firing of rockets at civilian populations. Any attacks targeted against civilians are unlawful and unjustifiable.

“We call on all sides to rapidly de-escalate the situation, and support the UN and Egyptian efforts to achieve that objective.”

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu (Abir Sultan/AP)

In a possible sign the fighting could be brief, Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group did not take part in Tuesday’s rocket fire.

With Gaza’s economy in tatters, it appears to have little desire for another round of fighting with Israel.

Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly said in speeches in recent weeks that Iran is becoming increasingly aggressive across the region and vowed to strike back.

Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel’s northern neighbour and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

Syria’s state-run news agency said Israeli warplanes fired three missiles at the home of Akram al-Ajouri, a member of Islamic Jihad’s leadership living in exile.

Ajouri was not harmed, but his son and granddaughter were killed, the report said. The Israeli military had no comment.

Israel Palestinians
Firefighters at the scene after a factory hit by a rocket caught fire in Sderot, southern Israel (Tsafrir Abayov/AP)

The air strike came at a sensitive time for the Israeli leader.

After two inconclusive elections this year, Mr Netanyahu heads a caretaker government and is fighting for his political survival ahead of a possible indictment on corruption charges.

After Mr Netanyahu failed to cobble together a parliamentary coalition following an election in September, his chief rival, Benny Gantz, is now trying to form a government.

Despite their bitter rivalry, the two projected a message of unity on Tuesday.

Mr Gantz, a former military chief who led a 2014 war against Gaza militants, said he had been consulted by Mr Netanyahu ahead of the overnight air strike and called it the “right decision”.

Both men have expressed support for a unity government between their parties in order to avoid yet another election. But both have demanded that they lead the government.

Palestinians carry the body of Bahaa Abu el-Atta
Palestinians carry the body of Bahaa Abu el-Atta (Khalil Hamra/AP)

The Gaza airstrike killed Abu el-Atta as he slept at home, destroying the top floor of his apartment building.

Abu el-Atta’s relatives and the Islamic Jihad said Abu el-Atta’s wife was killed and the two wounded were their children.

Islamic Jihad is much smaller than Hamas.

But with the strong support of Iran, it has become much more aggressive in its confrontations with Israel. It often acts without Hamas’ support.

In recent weeks, Israeli media had identified Abu el-Atta as a senior militant responsible for repeated rocket attacks, including a late-night barrage over the Jewish sabbath two weeks ago.

His father said the Islamic Jihad commander had been in hiding in recent weeks, fearing he would be targeted.

Minutes after the group confirmed the death, rockets were fired toward Israel.

Air raid sirens continued to go off throughout the day as far away as Tel Aviv.

By nightfall, the army said nearly 200 rockets had been fired, with about half landing in open spaces and dozens more intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defence system.

But in one instance, a rocket landed on a road, just metres from a passing vehicle. In another, a rocket pierced the roof of a residential home.

The Mada rescue service said two people were treated for shrapnel wounds.

In response, Israel shut down crossing points into Gaza and reduced the permissible fishing area off the territory’s coast to six nautical miles.

Schools were closed, and people were told to stay home in communities stretching from the Gaza border all the way to Tel Aviv, about 55 miles away.

Public shelters were opened and restrictions were placed on large gatherings.

As the rocket fire persisted, Israel struck a series of Islamic Jihad targets throughout Gaza, killing at least three militants.