GAZA Israel on Wednesday launched one of the most ferocious assaults on Gaza since its invasion four years ago, hitting at least 20 targets in aerial attacks that killed the top military commander of Hamas, drew strong condemnation from Egypt and escalated the risks of a new war in the Middle East.
The Israelis coupled the intensity of the airstrikes with the threat of another ground invasion and warnings to all Hamas leaders in Gaza to stay out of sight or risk the same fate as the Hamas military commander, Ahmed al-Jabari, who was killed in a pinpoint airstrike as he was traveling by car down a Gaza street. We recommend that no Hamas operatives, whether low level or senior leaders, show their faces above ground in the days ahead, the Israel Defense Forces said in a Twitter message.
The ferocity of the airstrikes, which Israel called Operation Pillar of Defense in response to repeated rocket attacks by Gaza-based Palestinian militants, provoked rage in Gaza, where Hamas said the airstrikes amounted to war and promised a harsh response. Civil-defense authorities in Israel raised alert levels and told residents to take precautions for rocket retaliation from Gaza.
Health officials in Gaza quoted by news agencies said the Israeli attacks had killed at least nine people and wounded at least 40.
The abrupt escalation in hostilities between Israel and Hamas, the militant organization regarded by Israel as a terrorist group sworn to Israels destruction, came amid rising tensions between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors. Israel has faced growing lawlessness on its border with the Sinai, including cross-border attacks. It recently fired twice into Syria, which is caught in a civil war, after munitions fell in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and it has absorbed rocket fire from Gaza, which has damaged homes and frightened the population.
Israeli officials had promised a robust response to the rocket fire, but for the moment, at least, opted against a ground invasion and instead chose airstrikes and targeted killings.
The Israeli attacks especially threatened to further complicate Israels fragile relations with Egypt, where the Islamist-led government of President Mohamed Morsi, reversing a policy of ousted predecessor Hosni Mubarak, had established closer ties with Hamas and had been acting as a mediator to restore calm between Israel and Gaza-based militant groups.
In a sign of rising anti-Israel hostility in Egypt, Mr. Morsi ordered Egypts ambassador to Israel to return home, summoned the Israeli ambassador to protest, and called for emergency meetings of both the United Nations Security Council and the Arab League over the Gaza attacks. Egyptian state media said the Foreign Ministry had demanded that Israel stop its aggression at once.
Mr. Morsis Freedom and Justice Party, which was founded by the Muslim Brotherhood, issued a statement saying: The wanton aggression against Gaza proves that Israel has yet to realize that Egypt has changed and that the Egyptian people who revolted against oppression will not accept assaulting Gaza.
spokesman for Hamas, Fawzi Barhoum, said the Israelis had committed a dangerous crime and broke all redlines, and that the Israeli occupation will regret and pay a high price.
Military officials in Israel, which announced responsibility for the death of Mr. Jabari, later said in a statement that their forces had carried out additional airstrikes in Gaza targeting what they described as a significant number of long-range rocket sites owned by Hamas that had stored rockets capable of reaching 25 miles into Israel. The statement said the airstrikes had dealt a significant blow to the terror organizations underground rocket-launching capabilities.
Yisrael Katz, a minister from Israels governing Likud Party, issued a statement saying that the operation had sent a message to the Hamas political leaders in Gaza that the head of the snake must be smashed. Israel will continue to kill and target anyone who is involved in the rocket attacks.Hamas and medical officials in Gaza said both Mr. Jabari and a companion were killed by the airstrike on his car in Gaza City. Israeli news media said the companion was Mr. Jabaris son, but there was no immediate confirmation.
The Israel Defense Forces said in a statement that Mr. Jabari had been targeted because he served in the upper echelon of the Hamas command and was directly responsible for executing terror attacks against the state of Israel in the past number of years, including the 2006 abduction and five-year incarceration of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier, on the Israel-Gaza border.
The statement said the purpose of the attack was to severely impair the command and control chain of the Hamas leadership as well as its terrorist infrastructure.
The statement did not specify how the Israelis knew Mr. Jabari was in the car but said the operation had been implemented on the basis of concrete intelligence and using advanced capabilities.
A video released by the Israel Defense Forces and posted on YouTube showed an aerial view of the attack on what it identified as Mr. Jabaris car on a Gaza street as it was targeted and instantly blown up in a pinpoint bombing. News photographs of the aftermath showed the cars blackened hulk surrounded by a large crowd.
Israel Defense Forces later posted a Twitter showing a mugshot of Mr. Jabari overwritten by the word eliminated.
Hamas has controlled Gaza since 2007, a year after the Israelis withdrew from the territory captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. But Israeli forces went back into Gaza in the winter of 2008-09 in response to what they called a terrorist campaign by Palestinian militants there to launch rockets into Israel. The three-week military campaign killed as many as 1,400 Palestinians, including hundreds of civilians, and was widely condemned internationally.
Since then Hamas has mostly adhered to an informal, if shaky, cease-fire and at times tried to enforce the smaller militant groups to stick to it. But in recent months, under pressure from some of the Gaza population for not avenging deadly Israeli airstrikes, it has claimed responsibility for participating in the firing of rockets. Last week, it also claimed credit for detonating a tunnel packed with explosives along the Israel-Gaza border while Israeli soldiers were working nearby.
Israel has mainly responded to rocket attacks in recent years by attacking the rocket-launching squads, empty training sites or weapons manufacturing plants. Israel also had not attempted any high-profile assassinations, although it has killed some local leaders of small, radical Islamic organizations that it said were involved in planning attacks on Israelis.
Israel has long said it would hold Hamas responsible for attacks launched from Gaza on its forces and population, regardless of which group was behind them. Like the United States and Europe, Israel defines Hamas as a terrorist organization. Hamas refuses to recognize Israels right to exist.
Mr. Jabari became the acting leader of the Hamas military wing after Israel had severely wounded Muhammad Deif, the top commander, in an assassination attempt in 2003. Mr. Jabari had survived several previous Israeli raids. In 2004, Israeli planes attacked his house killing one of his sons and three other relatives.
Bet, the Israeli security agency, considered Mr. Jabari responsible for what it called all anti-Israeli terror activity emanating from Gaza.
He was also known for having played a major role in negotiations that led to the release of Mr. Shalitlast year. Mr. Jabari personally escorted Mr. Shalit during a handover to Egyptian intermediaries as part of a prisoner exchange for hundreds of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Video of the handoff to Egypt showed Mr. Jabari standing near Mr. Shalit.
Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich, a spokeswoman for the Israeli military, acknowledged Mr. Jabaris role in that prisoner exchange during a conference call with journalists on Wednesday announcing the airstrike on Mr. Jabaris car. She also said Mr. Jabari had a lot of blood on his hands.
Fares Akram reported from Gaza, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem. Rick Gladstone contributed reporting from New York, and Mayy El Sheikh and David D. Kirkpatrick from Cairo.
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