Israel launched an operation against Palestinian militants in Gaza yesterday, killing the military commander of Hamas and striking at least 20 other targets in the Strip, as the two sides veered close to an all-out war.
• Hamas military commander Ahmed Jabari dies after missile strike by Israel
• Attack dashes hope of truce initially tabled by Egypt after five days of cross--border conflict
Hamas said the commander, Ahmed Jabari, died along with an associate when their car was hit by an Israeli missile. Israel took responsibility for the attack, which came despite signs an Egyptian-brokered truce was gaining traction after a five-day surge of cross-border violence.
Israeli army officials said the strike was the start of “Operation Pillar of Defence” aimed at bringing a halt to rocket fire by Hamas and other militant groups into southern Israel, where hundreds of thousands of Israelis have been forced into shelters.
“We have only just started, and this is not the end of the story,” army spokesman Yoav Mordechai said. The military said its aircraft targeted more than 20 facilities that served as storage or launching sites for rockets. Among the weapons destroyed were rockets that could hit as far as 25 miles into Israel.
Gaza’s health minister said ten people were killed, two of them young children.
Israeli vice-premier Silvan Shalom said the assassination of Mr Jabari “restores the army’s deterrent capability”.
“They fired randomly on civilians and thought we didn’t have an answer,” he said. “The answer has now been given, that Israel won’t accept the violence, won’t accept having its citizens in shelters waiting for someone to mediate to reach a ceasefire.”
Video from Gaza showed the charred remains of a car belching flames as emergency crews picked up what appeared to be body parts.
The Shin Bet intelligence service said Mr Jabari was responsible for Hamas’s armed takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007 and for attacks including the cross-border raid in which Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit was seized in 2006.
Israeli military officials said Mr Jabari was identified by “precise intelligence” gathered over several months.
Hamas’s armed wing termed the killing of Jabari “a declaration of war against the Gaza Strip” and vowed revenge.
“The enemy will pay a dear price,” said Hamas legislator Mushir Masri.
Analysts say the nature of Hamas’s retaliation will determine whether Israel ends up launching another ground operation in Gaza reminiscent of its devastating Operation Cast Led in 2008-9.
The main factor constraining Israel is concern that it will result in a rupture of ties with Egypt, which is now ruled by Hamas’s parent organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood.