Palestinians help extinguish the fire after an Israeli air
strike on the car of Hamas's top commander in Gaza City.
Israel has launched a major offensive against Palestinian
militants in Gaza, killing the military commander of Hamas in
an air strike and threatening an invasion of the enclave that
the Islamist group vowed would "open the gates of hell".
The onslaught shattered hopes that a truce mediated on
Tuesday by Egypt could pull the two sides back from the brink
of war after five days of escalating Palestinian rocket
attacks and Israeli strikes at militant targets.
Operation "Pillar of Defence" began with a surgical strike on
a car carrying the commander of the military wing of Hamas,
the Islamist movement which controls Gaza and dominates a
score of smaller armed groups.
Within minutes of the death of Ahmed Al-Jaabari, big
explosions were rocking Gaza, as the Israeli air force struck
at selected targets just before sundown, blasting plumes of
smoke and debris high above the crowded city.
Panicking civilians ran for cover and the death toll mounted
quickly. Seven people including two girls under the age of
five were killed, the health ministry said.
A second Gaza war has loomed on the horizon for months as
waves of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli strikes grew
increasingly more intense and frequent.
Israel's Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009 began with a week
of air attacks and shelling, followed by a land invasion of
the blockaded coastal strip, sealed off at sea by the Israeli
navy. Some 1,400 Palestinians were killed and 13 Israelis
Hamas said Jaabari, who ran the organisation's armed wing,
Izz el-Deen Al-Qassam, died along with an unnamed associate
when their car was blown apart by an Israeli missile.
The charred and mangled wreckage of a car could be seen
belching flames, as emergency crews picked up what appeared
to be body parts.
GATES OF HELL
Israel confirmed it had carried out the attack and announced
there was more to come. Reuters witnesses saw Hamas security
compounds and police stations blasted apart.
"This is an operation against terror targets of different
organisations in Gaza," Israeli army spokeswoman Colonel
Avital Leibovitch told reporters.
Jaabari had "a lot of blood on his hands", she said. Other
militant groups including Islamic Jihad were on the target
Immediate calls for revenge were broadcast over Hamas radio.
"The occupation has opened the gates of hell," Hamas's armed
wing said. Smaller groups also vowed to strike back.
"Israel has declared war on Gaza and they will bear the
responsibility for the consequences," Islamic Jihad said.
Southern Israeli communities within rocket range of Gaza were
on full alert, and schools were ordered closed for Thursday.
About one million Israelis live in range of Gaza's relatively
primitive but lethal rockets, supplemented in recent months
by longer-range, more accurate systems.
"The days we face in the south will, in my estimation, prove
protracted," Brigadier-General Yoav Mordechai, Israel's chief
military spokesman, told Channel 2 TV.
"The home front must brace itself resiliently."
Mordechai said Israel was both responding to a surge in
Palestinian rocket salvoes earlier this week and trying to
prevent Hamas and other Palestinian factions from building up
their arsenals further.
Among the targets of Wednesday's air strikes were underground
caches of longer-range Hamas rockets, he said.
Asked if Israel might send in ground forces, Mordechai said:
"There are preparations, and if we are required to, the
option of an entry by ground is available."
Israel's intelligence agency Shin Bet said Jaabari was
responsible for Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip in 2007,
when the militant Islamist group ousted fighters of the Fatah
movement of its great rival, the Western-backed Palestinian
president Mahmoud Abbas.
It said Jaabari instigated the attack that led to the capture
of Israeli Corporal Gilad Shalit in a kidnap raid from Gaza
in 2006. Jaabari was also the man who handed Shalit over to
Israel in a prisoner exchange five years after his capture.
Israel holds a general election on Jan. 22 and conservative
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to retaliate
harshly against Hamas.
Hamas has been emboldened by the rise to power in
neighbouring Egypt of its spiritual mentors in the Muslim
Brotherhood, viewing them as a "safety net" that will not
permit a second Israeli thrashing of Gaza, home to 1.7
Egypt condemned Israel's strikes on Gaza and urged it to end
the attacks at once.
Hamas has historically been supported by Iran, which Israel
regards as a rising threat to its own existence due to its
In the flare-up that was prelude to Wednesday's offensive,
more than 115 missiles were fired into southern Israel from
Gaza and Israeli planes launched numerous strikes.
Seven Palestinians, three of them gunmen, were killed. Eight
Israeli civilians were hurt by rocket fire and four soldiers
wounded by an anti-tank missile.
Helped by Iran and the flourishing contraband trade through
tunnels from Egypt, Gaza militias have smuggled in better
weapons since the war of 2008-09.
But Gaza's estimated 35,000 Palestinian fighters are still no
match for Israel's F-16 fighter-bombers, Apache helicopter
gunships, Merkava tanks and other modern weapons systems in
the hands of a conscript force of 175,000, with 450,000 in
Israel's shekel fell nearly one percent to a two-month low
against the dollar on Wednesday after news of the Israeli air