Israel kills Hamas military chief in air strike offensive on Gaza Strip
Israel has launched a large- scale military operation against militants in Gaza, beginning the attacks with an air strike that killed the Hamas military commander, and raising the possibility of another Gaza war.
Ahmed Jabari, who had narrowly escaped at least three Israeli assassination attempts in the past, was killed in Gaza city when the car in which he was travelling was hit by an Israeli missile.
The attack signalled the beginning of a much wider Israeli offensive, dubbed operation Pillar of Defence. At least 10 Palestinians were killed and dozens wounded as air strikes, tank shelling and fire from naval vessels sent Hamas political leaders and militant commanders into hiding, fearing the strikes were a prelude to a ground offensive.
Israel sent infantry units to the Gaza border and called up selected army reserve units. However, it was unclear if this was the start of another invasion of Gaza or an act intended to deter militants from responding with rocket fire deep into Israel.
Egypt last night recalled its ambassador to Israel in response to the Israeli offensive.
In a televised statement prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu said no country would put up with continuous rocket fire on its civilian population and Israel was no different. He said that while the militant groups deliberately target innocent civilians, Israel makes every effort to avoid civilian casualties.
He said accurate strikes were reported that have significantly affected the ability of militant groups to fire rockets at Israel.
“Today we sent a clear message to Hamas and the other terror groups. If there is a need, the Israeli Defence Forces are ready to expand this operation. We are ready to do everything to defend our civilians.”
Defence minister Ehud Barak said Israel was not interested in war but “Hamas provocations” over recent weeks make it imperative that Israel act. He said the aim of the operation was to restore the country’s deterrence and to protect residents of southern Israel.
Military chiefs described Jabari as a man with “a lot of blood on his hands”. He was the mastermind behind the capture of Cpl Gilad Shalit who was eventually released a year ago in return for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.
Israeli leaders had warned earlier this week that the policy of targeted assassinations could resume in response to militant rocket fire into the southern region. But the wave of attacks took Gazans by surprise, coming after a day of relative calm when it appeared that the latest flare-up had ended.
The focus of the initial Israeli strikes appeared to be underground storage facilities for longer-range rockets, some of which, Israel believes, have the capacity to reach Tel Aviv.
The Iranian-manufactured Fajr rockets have been smuggled into Gaza via underground tunnels over recent years.
Schools throughout southern Israel, along with some work places, are closed today and more than a million residents were ordered to stay close to bomb shelters.
Hamas vowed to hit back and militants fired dozens of projectiles last night, targeting population centres including Beersheba in southern Israel.
“The occupation has opened the gates of hell on itself,” said Hamas’s armed wing after Jabari’s assassination.
Senior Hamas militant Ismail al-Ashkar warned that Israel will pay a heavy price.
“The resistance’s options are now open and they include suicide attacks and quality attacks in Israel’s cities.”
It is unclear at this juncture how long the latest exchanges will last and Israeli leaders refused to put a time limit on the operation. Army spokesman Brig Gen Yoav (Poly) Mordechai said: “In the upcoming days we will witness waves of attacks and pillars of smoke above the Gaza Strip. We estimate that the upcoming days will hold very difficult challenges. It is our working assumption that in the next few days we will see a large number of rockets fired at the south.”
Israelis go to the polls in January and it is likely that electoral considerations played a role in Mr Netanyahu’s decision to launch the latest offensive, following complaints from residents in the south that the government’s response to incessant rocket fire was not sufficiently strident.
Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League. Last night he contacted Arab and international powers to intervene and stop the escalation and what he termed “Israeli aggression” in Gaza.
Egypt condemned the Israeli offensive and warned that the escalation will have regional implications. Cairo last night demanded that Israel immediately halt its offensive, before recalling its ambassador.
The renewed violence will further strain the already tense relations between Israel and Egypt’s new Islamic leadership.