The Israeli air strikes targeted senior Islamic jihad commanders in Gaza and Syria, escalated the Israeli confrontation with Iran across the region, and threatened to unleash another devastating round of cross-border violence against Palestinian fighters.

In the eastern Gaza Strip, the Israeli strike killed Bahaa Abu el-Atta and his wife, triggering a furious rifle from dozens of rocket attacks that reached to the heartland of Tel Aviv, and Islamic jihad promised further revenge.

The Israeli military said Abu el-Atta was the head of the recent attacks and the supreme commander of the militant group in Gaza.

Syrian officials said an Israeli air strike in the capital, Damascus, targeted another Islamic jihad commander, Akram al-Ajouri, but remained unhurt.

A building hit by Israeli rocket attacks in Damascus
A building hit by Israeli rocket attacks in Damascus (Sana / AP)

The state news agency reported that Israeli planes fired three rockets at al-Ajouri's home and killed his son and granddaughter. The Israeli military had no comment.

The sudden increase in violence is likely to spark Israel's increasingly open conflict with Iran and its representatives in the region. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently issued a series of warnings about alleged Iranian aggression.

He was also criticized by residents of the southern border and political rivals for his lukewarm response to recent militant attacks. His security cabinet held a long emergency meeting to discuss further action.

Netanyahu then said next to Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi that el-Atta, an "arch-terrorist, was the main terrorist from the Gaza Strip."

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu (Abir Sultan / AP)

"He was in the process of planning additional attacks," Netanyahu said. "He was a ticking bomb."

The air strikes are politically sensitive to Israel's timing as Netanyahu leads an interim government after two inconclusive elections.

His main opponent, former military chief Benny Gantz, is trying to build his own coalition government. Mr Gantz said the airstrike was "the right decision".

A successful military operation could strengthen Netanyahu's desire to retain power, especially if he is charged with corruption.

Israel's attorney general is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks and an indictment would increase the pressure on him to step aside. Mr. Netanyahu has tried to be the only leader who can guide the country through its many security challenges.

The airstrike in the Gaza Strip took place overnight, killing Abu el-Atta while he slept at home.

Palestinians carry the body of Baha'a Abu el-Atta
Palestinians carry the body of Baha'a Abu el-Atta (Khalil Hamra / AP)

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, told reporters that Abu-el-Atta was responsible for several rocket attacks on southern Israel and was actively planning new attacks.

"Essentially, we waited for the right moment to complete this surgical punch last week," he said.

He added that the air raid had only destroyed the floor of the building in Sheyaeya district in the eastern part of Gaza City to minimize collateral damage.

His relatives and the Islamic Jihad said that the woman killed in the strike was Abu el-Atta's wife and the two wounded were her children.

The militant group said that 42-year-old Abu el-Atta had committed a "heroic act" in his murder.

Abu El-Atta's father said that the Islamic Jihad commander had been hiding in recent weeks to fear he would be targeted.

Minutes after the Iran-backed Palestinian group confirmed death, rockets were fired at Israel.

The air raid sirens went all the way to Tel Aviv. In one case, a rocket landed on a freeway just meters from a passing vehicle.

According to the military, more than 50 rockets were fired within a few hours, of which 20 were intercepted by the Israeli defense system Iron Dome. There were no Israeli victims.