He described Abu el-Atta as a "ticking time bomb" and "main terrorist activist" from Gaza, responsible for many rocket attacks on Israel and planning more.
He said the assassination had been approved ten days earlier, and Israel had been waiting for "optimal conditions" to hit him while minimizing the number of civilian casualties. He said Israel was not interested in an escalation, but warned, "This could take some time."
Egypt, which frequently mediates between militants from Israel and the Gaza Strip, is trying to defuse tension, officials in Cairo say. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
In a possible indication that the fighting may be brief, the ruling Hamas militant group in the Gaza Strip did not participate in the rocket fire on Tuesday. Although Hamas is bigger and more powerful than Islamic Jihad, it is also more pragmatic. Given the shattered economy in the Gaza Strip, there seems to be little appetite for another round of fighting with Israel.
Netanyahu has repeatedly said in speeches in recent weeks that Iran, Israel's archenemy, is becoming increasingly aggressive throughout the region, and is willing to fight back.
Iran has armed forces in Syria, Israel's northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah militants in Lebanon. In Gaza, it supplies the Islamic Jihad with cash, weapons and expertise. Netanyahu has also claimed that Iran uses Iraq and far-off Yemen to plan attacks against Israel. Hamas is also supported by Iran.
Israel often encounters Iranian interests in Syria. The airstrike in Damascus on Tuesday, however, seemed to be a rare assassination attempt on a Palestinian militant in the Syrian capital.
Syria's state news agency announced that Israeli fighters have fired three rockets at the home of Akram al-Ajouri, a member of the exiled Islamic Jihad leadership. Ajouri was not injured, but his son and granddaughter were killed, according to the report. The Israeli military had no comment.
The air raid came at a sensitive time for the Israeli leader. After two inconclusive elections this year, Netanyahu heads an interim government and fights for his political survival before being charged with corruption.
After Netanyahu failed to assemble a parliamentary coalition following a September election, his main rival Benny Gantz is now trying to form a government.
Despite their fierce rivalry, the two projected a message of unity on Tuesday. Gantz, a former military chief who led a 201
A successful military operation could strengthen Netanyahu's desire to remain in power, especially if he is expected to face charges of corruption in the coming weeks.
Netanyahu has attempted to present himself as the only leader capable of directing Israel through its numerous security challenges. The remaining prime minister would put him in the best position to prosecute, as all other Cabinet ministers will have to automatically resign if they are charged.
Efraim Inbar, president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said protracted struggles could bring the two men to compromise. "It could be used as a moment for a national unity government," he said.
But Stav Shaffir, a legislator of the Dovish Democratic Union, questioned the timing and motives of the murder. "It's hard not to ask timing questions," she tweeted. "Over every decision floats a cloud of suspicion."
The airstrike in the Gaza Strip killed Abu el-Atta as he slept at home destroying the top floor of his home. Abu El-Atta's relatives and the Islamic Jihad said Abu El-Aza's wife had been killed and the two wounded were her children.
Islamic Jihad is much smaller than Hamas. But with Iran's strong support, it has become much more aggressive in its confrontations with Israel. It often acts without the support of Hamas.
In recent weeks, Israeli media has identified Abu el-Atta as a high-ranking militant responsible for repeated rocket attacks, including a nocturnal barrage on the Jewish Sabbath two weeks ago. His father said the Islamic jihad commander had been hiding for the past few weeks for fear he might be attacked.
Minutes after the group confirmed death, rockets were fired at Israel. Air raid sirens went off all the way to Tel Aviv all day.
At dusk, the army claimed to have fired nearly 200 missiles, with about half of them landed and dozens more intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defense system. In one case, a rocket landed on a freeway just meters from a passing vehicle. In another case, a rocket pierced the roof of a residential building.
The Mada Rescue Service reported that two people had been treated for splinter wounds.
In response, Israel closed border crossings to Gaza and reduced the allowable fishing area off the coast of the territory to 6 nautical miles. The schools were shut down and people were told to stay at home in communities stretching from the Gaza border to Tel Aviv some 90 kilometers away. Public shelters were opened and large gatherings restricted.
When the rocket fire continued, Israel struck a series of Islamic jihad targets throughout Gaza, killing at least three militants.
The attacks also occurred at a difficult time for the Iranian patrons of Islamic Jihad, who suffer from crippling US sanctions.
Iran's regional influence is also being called into question by unprecedented, economically motivated mass protests in Iraq and Lebanon – two countries where Tehran has great influence. Tehran fears the riots may trigger a backlash on its proxy in those countries, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has accused the US and its regional allies of inciting them.