Israel killed the head of Hamas’s military wing in an air strike today and hit other targets across Gaza in what officials said was the start of a broad operation in response to rocket attacks on Israeli territory.
At least two missiles tore through the moving car of Ahmed Jabari in Gaza, ripping the roof off the vehicle and setting it on fire. A passenger in the car was also killed.
In live footage from the scene, hundreds of Palestinians could be seen rushing to the car, prying off the doors and the hood and dousing the flames. Airstrikes on other parts of Gaza caused pillars of black smoke to rise high above the territory.
The attacks marked the start of an offensive that Israeli officials had been hinting at for days. Army spokesman Yoav Mordechai, a brigadier general, said the operation was not limited in time. He did not rule out the possibility that Israel would send ground troops into Gaza—a significant escalation, if it comes to pass.
Asked if Israel would strike at other top Hamas operators, he said: “If I were a Hamas activist right now, whether low ranking or high ranking, I’d try to find shelter underground.”
Mordechai said the targets of the assault included depots where Hamas and other groups store their rockets—some with enough range to reach deep into Israel. It wasn’t immediately clear if other Hamas leaders were targeted in the assault.
Palestinians responded by firing at Ashkelon, an Israeli town about four miles north of Gaza but no one was wounded.
The exchanges are only the latest flare-up in the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which grabbed power in Gaza in 2007. Israel has kept the territory largely under siege, in a strategy aimed at toppling the Islamic group. Hamas has responded with intermittent violence, including a surge of rocket attacks over the weekend.
Some Israelis had been calling for a reprising of Israel’s 22-day offensive on Gaza four years ago known as Cast Lead, in which more than 1,000 Palestinians were killed. That offensive left Gaza in ruins and prompted harsh international criticism against Israel.
Jabari, 52, had been on Israel’s wanted list for some years. He had overseen the abduction of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in 2006 and handled the negotiations that led to his release last year in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
A native of the West Bank, Jabari spent 13 years in jail for plotting an attack on Israelis. He began his activism as a member of the mainstream Fatah—the group linked to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—but switched allegiance to Hamas while in jail.
Palestinian sources said Jabari had survived several previous assassination attempts by Israel and was wounded in one of them in 2004. They said his son, brother, and three other relatives had been killed by Israel in operations over the years.
Jabari engineered Hamas’s takeover of Gaza from Fatah in 2007, an operation that effectively split Palestinians into two camps.
Analysts said the attack on him required pinpoint intelligence. They said its success was a boost for Netanyahu’s reelection campaign. Israelis go to the polls in just two months.
“I would say this operation is the Israeli equivalent, Netanyahu’s equivalent, of America’s strike on Osama bin Laden,” said Avi Benayahu, a former army spokesman.
Hamas promised to avenge the killing, hinting that it might fire rockets at Tel Aviv, Israel’s busiest metropolis. The group has mostly targeted small Israeli communities bordering Gaza. An attack on Tel Aviv would significantly raise the stakes in what is otherwise a low-intensity conflict between the two sides.
Osama Hamdan, a top-ranking member of Hamas in Lebanon, said the Jabari’s death was a “fierce blow” for the group.
“Our brother Jabari has been a target of the Zionist Enemy for a long time. They are now settling accounts with him. He beat them when he got Shalit, kept him in an unknown place for years, and then released him through an impressive exchange of a thousand prisoners,” he said on Al-Arabyia television.
“The Israeli enemy is trying to boost its morale before their elections at the expense of the lives and safety of the people of the Gaza Strip,” Hamdan said. “They are trying to demoralize the Palestinian people.”